AP EXCLUSIVE: First federal inmate tests positive for coronavirus

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. | Illustration by Henry Keller
COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. | Illustration by Henry Keller (KSAT)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An inmate at a federal jail in New York City has tested positive for coronavirus, marking the first confirmed case in the federal prison system.

The inmate, who is housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, complained of chest pains on Thursday, a few days after he arrived at the facility, the federal Bureau of Prisons told The Associated Press. He was taken to a local hospital and was tested for COVID-19, officials said.

The inmate was discharged from the hospital on Friday and returned to the jail, where he was immediately placed in isolation, the agency said. The Bureau of Prisons learned Saturday that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The inmate remained isolated away from other prisoners on Saturday, but medical and psychiatric staff were visiting him routinely, officials said.

The confirmation of the first coronavirus case in the system by the BOP comes as jails and prisons across the country are taking precautions to slow the spread of coronavirus. Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of outbreaks in jails and prisons, which are ideal environments for viruses: Inmates share small cells with total strangers, use toilets just a few feet from their beds, and are herded into day rooms where they spend hours at a time together.

There have been two positive cases among BOP staff members: an employee who works at an administrative office in Grand Prairie, Texas, and another employee who works in Leavenworth, Kansas, but who officials said did not have contact with inmates since becoming symptomatic.

The Bureau of Prisons has temporarily halted visitation at all 122 federal correction facilities across the U.S., including both social and legal visitation, though officials have said some exceptions could be made for legal visits.

Officials said staffers at the Metropolitan Detention Center would continue to monitor the inmate and they were working to trace who he had contact with, as well as sanitizing “affected areas.” Other inmates who were housed with the man are also being quarantined, along with staff members who may have had contact with him.