WASHINGTON — By the time Andrea Circle Bear was pronounced dead Tuesday — just weeks after giving birth by cesarean section while on a ventilator — she was among hundreds of federal prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens who have died.
The number of coronavirus infections in the country's largest detention system has surged since prison officials announced last week that they're expanding testing to seek out asymptomatic inmates. Coronavirus cases have doubled to more than 1,300 as of Tuesday, not including the 335 staffers who have tested positive.
Thirty prisoners have died. Six, most of whom had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, died in the past five days alone.
Nearly 70 percent of all infections are at three facilities in California, Texas and North Carolina. Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Los Angeles County has the highest number of coronavirus cases — 443 as of Tuesday.
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Circle Bear was serving the first few months of a two-year sentence for a drug charge. The 30-year-old inmate died a little over a month after she was transferred to the Carswell Federal Medical Center, a women's prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
Officials said Circle Bear, 30, was taken to a local hospital on March 28 because of potential concerns with her pregnancy. She was discharged on the same day, although her condition deteriorated. Circle Bear was taken back to the hospital two days later because of symptoms such as fever and dry cough and was placed on a ventilator. She gave birth on April 1, tested positive for COVID-19 three days later, and died after three weeks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list pregnancy as among the underlying medical conditions that could make someone at risk of having a severe case of coronavirus, and little is known about how pregnant women could be affected by COVID-19. But pregnancy causes immunologic and physiologic changes that might make women vulnerable to viral respiratory infections.
The Bureau of Prisons has joined a small number of states that expanded coronavirus testing to asymptomatic inmates to try to slow the spread of the virus. State prisons in North Carolina and Ohio have also expanded testing, revealing hundreds of asymptomatic infections.
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The Justice Department has been reviewing conditions at some of the most hard-hit federal prisons in Louisiana, Ohio and North Carolina, which has seen a larger share of deaths. The department's inspector general is conducting a separate inquiry.
Attorney General William Barr has ordered the expedited release of vulnerable inmates and has directed the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize moving certain prisoners to home confinement.
An affidavit by Jennifer Broton, an associate warden at a federal prison in Miami, said the Bureau of Prisons is prioritizing prisoners who have served at least half of their time. Those who have have served a quarter of their sentence and have 18 months or less left will also be prioritized for release.
As of last week, about 1,500 prisoners have been moved to home confinement, officials said.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer who's serving a three-year prison sentence, was among those granted early release.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson