Warden at Penitentiary Tests Positive for COVID-19

Two more inmate deaths in Wyoming prisons attributed to respiratory disease

The two latest deaths linked to COVID-19 in the state’s prison system involved inmates at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington. It brings to eight the total number of Wyoming prison inmate deaths linked to the respiratory illness since the pandemic began two years ago. (Photo courtesy of Wyoming Department of Corrections)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The newly appointed warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins tested positive for COVID-19 this week, requiring her to quarantine, and the Department of Corrections announced that two additional inmate deaths last year have been attributed to the respiratory illness, following their autopsies.

Neicole Molden, who took over the warden’s job Dec. 17 at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, told the Wyoming Truth on Friday that she had experienced only mild symptoms related to COVID, and she plans to be back to work next week.

Molden said she took a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test Monday as part of a regular weekly testing procedure for staff at the prison and the test came back positive. The warden followed up with a rapid test Tuesday, which also was positive, and she started isolating because she was feeling unwell.

Earlier in her illness, Molden said she experienced symptoms of fatigue and body aches. However, by Friday, the warden seemed to have mostly recovered.

“I feel great now, feel back to normal,” Molden said. The warden noted she had received the primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine in addition to a booster shot.

She told the Wyoming Truth that she is unsure if she became ill while at work.

Meanwhile, the Wyoming Department of Corrections this month added two more inmate deaths attributed to COVID-19 to its tally for a total of eight deaths linked to the respiratory illness since the pandemic began two years ago.

The two new COVID-19 deaths added to the count are from the autopsy results of earlier deaths, Molden clarified. The two latest deaths involved inmates at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington.

Last year, five inmates housed within the Wyoming Department of Corrections prisons died in a span of weeks between October and November, equaling the number of prisoner deaths recorded in all of 2020 for any cause.

The department does not reveal the causes of deaths for inmates because of medical reasons and privacy concerns, according to Paul Martin, the department’s deputy administrator of the transparency division. It can also take a few weeks to receive autopsy results, he noted.

As of Thursday, the Wyoming Department of Corrections reported 15 new positive COVID-19 cases at its five prisons.

The Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution recorded 10 new cases, five among staff and five among inmates. The Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp in Newcastle reported three positive COVID-19 cases among staff. The Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk reported one case among staff and one case among inmates.

The Wyoming State Penitentiary reported no positive cases, although Molden tested positive there. The warden explained that her official PCR test result didn’t arrive until late Thursday after the Wyoming Department of Corrections’ weekly meeting and updates. She added her positive test result should be reflected in next week’s COVID-19 case counts.

About 55% of inmates at the Wyoming State Penitentiary have been vaccinated against COVID-19, while about 60% of inmates in the Wyoming Department of Corrections system were inoculated as of Dec. 31, according to Martin.

Vaccinations for inmates and staff are voluntary. The department is also offering booster shots as well to inmates, Martin noted.

He said the department has had “a very aggressive practice of testing staff and offenders for COVID-19” throughout the pandemic.

Each prison tests a random sample of 20% of staff and inmates under normal circumstances, according to Martin. However, he said if testing yields positive results in the inmate population, then all staff and prisoners must undergo testing. If positive results are isolated, then 100% of the affected living units will be tested. If positive results are spread out, then all staff and inmates at the facility will undergo testing.

Face coverings are required for staff and inmates, and prisoners are supposed to social distance as much as possible, Molden said. The Wyoming State Penitentiary also has quarantine and isolation units if inmates test positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to someone with the viral illness.

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