Confirmed COVID-19 cases increased 540% at Texas prison – Houston Chronicle

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Wallace Pack Unit increased 540 percent in 10 days, according to documents filed in a lawsuit seeking more protections against the spread of the virus for prisoners.

There were 22 confirmed cases among those held in the geriatric prison northwest of Houston on May 11, the document says, and by May 21, there were a total of 141. Of those patients, 10 have been hospitalized and four have died. An additional 739 tests are currently pending.

Because of the “alarming speed the COVID-19 virus is spreading” in the prison,” a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Friday ordered that oral arguments be expedited. The hearing, originally scheduled for June 4, was moved up to Thursday.

The surge in confirmed cases comes after the court directed the prison to give updates on the status of the spread of the virus as they develop.

The original lawsuit, filed in April by two elderly men held in the prison, alleged that the Texas Department of Corrections wasn’t doing enough to protect its population from the pandemic. The lawsuit claimed that the Pack Unit — which houses 1,250 prisoners over 50 years old or who have health conditions — selectively followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

The geriatric inmates, who the lawsuit says face a higher risk of severe illness from exposure to the virus, were not properly distanced from each other or educated about the symptoms. The men asked for access to hand sanitizer, face masks and more testing, among other protections.

TDCJ officials said its practices evolved with CDC guidelines and that it was working with state and federal health officials to keep inmates and employees safe.

A federal judge initially ruled in favor of the imprisoned men, but an appeals court later halted the order that would have mandated more protections. The U.S. Supreme Court on May 14 denied a request to toss out the appeals court’s decision.

The next hearing in the appeal is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday and will be held via audio-visual conference. Attorneys representing the prison will be expected to give another update on the number of confirmed cases and what measures are being taken to slow the spread of the virus.

The case involves the same judge and the same prison where inmates won a landmark settlement over dangerous indoor heat.

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