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Virus impact: Marquette Branch Prison may be used as isolation area

MARQUETTE — The Michigan Department of Corrections is ramping up measures to combat the coronavirus that might involve the use of the Marquette Branch Prison as an isolation site.

As of Wednesday morning, 121 prisoners and one parolee have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections response to coronavirus and preventative measures webpage.

As the number of confirmed cases grows throughout the nation and in the state prisons, the MDOC has been working to prepare isolation sites. The Marquette Branch Prison along U.S. 41 in Marquette may be one of them.

“All of our prisons and all of our wardens have been tasked the last few weeks with determining how they’re going to handle if they have an influx of cases,” MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said. “Do they have the ability on-site to house prisoners in quarantine status?”

Roughly a dozen of Michigan’s 29 prisons have some capacity to quarantine prisoners, he said.

Some facilities have housing units that may have been taken offline due to a decrease in the inmate population, as well as segregated areas that could easily be used for quarantine.

The Marquette Branch Prison has been working on creating such a space, should the MDOC need it, Gautz said.

“We haven’t sent anybody there. There’s no plan to send all of Michigan’s sick prisoners to Marquette. I think that’s kind of what the fear is and what some of the scuttlebutt we’ve seen online is about, just because they’re seeing things being moved around. It’s just a matter of precaution and planning,” he said. “Because we don’t want to have a situation — say, over the weekend — one prison gets a whole bunch of prisoners that need to be quarantined or isolated. And then we’re scrambling trying to figure out what to do with them. We don’t want that to be the case. We want to be prepared for every eventuality, so that’s what we’re doing.”

A number of the positive inmates in lower Michigan were moved to a prison in Jackson to be properly treated, as the facility houses a health center that looks and operates like a small hospital, Gautz added.

If an inmate is suspected of having contracted COVID-19, they are isolated. Anyone they may have had close personal contact with is quarantined separately while they await test results. If a test is negative, the inmate would return to their usual living situation, he said.

“We just want to make sure that we have the ability to do that because we don’t want to be transferring people as it is right now,” Gautz said. “We’ve basically canceled all transfers other than for safety and security reasons at our prison. So we’re really trying to limit how much we do transfers at all. But we do have to have plans in place if we have large numbers that the facilities where they’re at can’t properly quarantine them.”

Trinity Carey can be reached at tcarey@miningjournal.net.

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