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NECX outbreak causes spike in Johnson County’s COVID-19 cases

Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) in Johnson County over the weekend returned 233 positive results in the inmate population. As of October 6, NECX also reports its staff having 122 positive tests and 83 of those being cleared to return to work. Submitted photo.

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

When the new COVID-19 positive cases were released last week by the state department of health, everything was pretty expected until Tuesday and Wednesday when 226 new cases were reported for the two days combined, with 63 on Tuesday and a whopping 163 on Wednesday. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 318 new cases in northeast Tennessee on October 7, smashing the previous daily record of 229 cases reported on July 31. More than half of the cases were in Johnson County.

Officials with the Tennessee Department of Correction confirmed that tests performed on inmates at the Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) over the weekend returned 233 positive results in the inmate population. The aggregate data reports 122 positive staff at NECX as of October 6, with 83 of those being cleared to return to work. 

“Numbers of COVID cases within a county are not separated by TDH regardless of residence type being of a group nature, whether that be a group home, penal facility, nursing home, etc.,” explained Caroline Hurt, County Director, Carter and Johnson County Health Departments. “While it does take an additional step to use TDOC-supplied information to subtract Johnson County numbers originating through NECX, and although the inmate population is sequestered from the community, there is still valuable benefit to viewing clusters of cases among inmates as being directly connected to the community’s risk, since this places the NECX workforce at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 and increases the possibility of transmission within the community where workers live, have children attending school, or have family working in the community.”

Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor agrees with Hurts and stresses the importance of mitigating community spread. “Even though all those cases are sequestered, they could, through the infecting of staff members, bring new active cases to this community,” said Mayor Taylor. “That is why it is so important that we continue to wear masks when it is not possible to social distance.”

“The Tennessee Department of Correction is committed to protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our staff, inmates, and communities. We have closely monitored COVID-19 developments throughout the pandemic and have adhered to all guidelines and recommendations from both the Tennessee Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control,” said Robert Reburn, East Tennessee Region Public Information Officer, Tennessee Department of Corrections. “TDOC has maintained a series of steps to try to prevent the spread of the virus, including non-invasive screenings, frequent cleaning and disinfection of high touch areas, and mandatory masks for staff and inmates. The department has been following established protocols for isolation of positive cases and quarantine for suspected cases.”

“Since becoming one of the first agencies in the country to conduct mass testing, the TDOC has proactively tested inmates during intake, after medical appointments, before leaving TDOC custody and as indicated by contact tracing,” Commissioner Tony Parker said. “Two new inmate deaths were reported last week from inmates that had previously tested positive for COVID-19. TDOC has reported a total of four deaths at NECX during the pandemic, but indicates cause of death pending official determination by medical examiner.”

Tennessee has more than 21,600 state inmates in adult facilities as of the end of July. The state has 14 prisons, including four by CoreCivic.