By Emily Hamer, Wisconsin State Journal
At least two inmates at Dodge Correctional Institution died in September after contracting COVID-19 — the first confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in the Wisconsin prison system.
The Dodge County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed the deaths Wednesday with the Wisconsin State Journal.
More COVID-19-related deaths among prisoners may have occurred in Wisconsin, but the state Department of Corrections does not report that information because of privacy laws.
“As it relates to the death of any person in our care, the DOC is a HIPAA-covered entity and privacy protections prevent us from sharing information related to their medical diagnoses or cause of death,” DOC said in a Wednesday statement.
A 63-year-old man in Dodge Correctional died Sept. 12 from COVID-19, Dodge County Medical Examiner PJ Schoebel said. The man had pre-existing health conditions, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, but Schoebel said a forensic examination determined that the primary cause of death was COVID-19.
On Sept. 15, a 62-year-old man who tested positive for COVID-19 while incarcerated at Dodge Correctional died of lung cancer. The COVID-19 infection was a contributing factor to his death, Schoebel said.
In its statement, DOC said it is using “all available resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our institutions” and treat those who become infected.
“The Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ top priority during this public health crisis is the safety and well-being of our staff and persons in our care,” DOC said.
In early September, Dodge Correctional had an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, with a peak of 89 active positive cases among inmates Sept. 9.
As of Wednesday, the maximum-security prison had a total of 182 positive cases since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 151 inmates had recovered, 32 were actively infected and two were released from custody, according to DOC’s dashboard of COVID-19 cases.
It’s unclear whether the two inmates who died are the cases counted in the “released” category on the dashboard. As of Tuesday, zero cases had been reported in that category, even though the two inmates died weeks ago.
DOC did not immediately respond to a question Wednesday about why, up until Tuesday, their data dashboard had made it appear as though all of the inmates who tested positive at Dodge either were actively fighting COVID-19 or had already recovered when two of the inmates had died.
DOC spokesman John Beard said Tuesday that DOC does not determine the cause of an inmate’s death or any contributing factors to the death, and cannot release that information. Local medical examiners and coroners are the ones who determine the cause of death.
“The DOC can confirm when a person in our care passes away, but confidentiality laws and privacy protections prevent us from sharing information related to their medical diagnoses,” Beard said.
In a June interview, Makda Fessahaye, administrator for the Division of Adult Institutions, said providing more specific information — such as the number of infected individuals who have been hospitalized or whether any inmates with COVID-19 died — could lead to a “breach in confidentially” because reporters may be able to “connect the dots” and find out who was infected. That would be a violation of privacy laws.
Fessahaye declined to say whether DOC would release more generalized information on COVID-19 deaths if they were to occur. At the time of the interview in early June, no DOC inmates had died yet.
“We would be as transparent as possible within the confines of the law should we have a death,” Fessahaye said at the time.
Two other Wisconsin prisons, Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution and Oshkosh Correctional Institution, are in the midst of massive COVID-19 outbreaks.
As of Wednesday, Kettle Moraine had 417 active cases among inmates — the largest outbreak in a Wisconsin prison yet.
Sheboygan County Medical Examiner Chris Nehring said his office investigates all inmate deaths from Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, which is located in his county. Other medical examiners and coroners do the same for inmate deaths in their respective counties.
Nehring said Wednesday there have been no reported COVID-19 deaths, or any deaths for that matter, at Kettle Moraine Correctional within the last six months.
The Winnebago County Coroner’s Office declined to comment on whether any COVID-19 deaths have occurred at Oshkosh Correctional, which had 344 active positive cases among inmates as of Wednesday.
An additional 29 inmates at Oshkosh have been infected but recovered and another six have tested positive and been released.
Across all DOC institutions, 897 inmates were actively infected with COVID-19 Wednesday.