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Missouri prisoners raise concerns about guards without masks

The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri prisoners are raising health concerns because guards are not always required to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Inmates across the state say that many guards choose not to wear face coverings that can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Rhonda Smith, a 42-year-old inmate at Chillicothe Correctional Center, said the agency's handling of the pandemic feels "uncaring."

"It could have been avoided, but hey, this is prison right?" she said. "That's how they make us feel."

So far at least 67 staffers at 12 prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 200 inmates have contracted the virus.

Statewide, 27,890 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Missouri as of Monday, according to confirmed cases reported by the state health department. That's an increase of 447 cases compared to Sunday. The state reported another 14 deaths Monday, bringing the virus' death toll up to at least 1,083 people in Missouri.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said guards must wear N95 masks and other protective gear around prisoners showing symptoms of coronavirus or those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Staff temperatures are taken daily.

Pojmann said the agency handed out face masks to all prisoners and guards, but they're not required to wear them.

"Why is it people who work at McDonald's or small or big time businesses dealing with the public has to wear them but these staff members are above everything else?" 33-year-old Chillicothe inmate Christa Mueller wrote through the prison's email system. "Our lives matter too!"

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a University of North Carolina assistant professor and an expert in health in prisons, said face masks are key to stopping the spread of the virus in prisons.

"Because asymptomatic spread is possible, social distancing in prison facilities is often impossible, and testing access is based largely on whether people have symptoms, it is really important for corrections officers to wear masks at all times to eliminate the spread of COVID-19," said Brinkley-Rubinstein, who also co-founded the COVID Prison Project.

Meanwhile, an organizer of a crowded July 3 house party in Cass County that's the source of a cluster of coronavirus cases said that he regrets not being more careful.

Kansas City resident Cole Wood said he never expected roughly 400 people to show up for the party, and he wasn't worried about spreading the virus because the crowd was mostly younger people.

But five people who attended the party have since tested positive for COVID-19, and Wood and at least nine others are experiencing symptoms. He said the party was an "eye opener."

"We all feel bad for causing this little outbreak that has happened," he said. "We feel like we should have been more responsible. Told people to wear masks or something. Not invited everyone."