A grand jury has found no criminal wrongdoing after reviewing the deaths of six Nebraska prison inmates who had COVID-19.
The deaths, men between the ages of 54 and 79, happened within a three-month period that ended in December, all in Lincoln, though one had been an inmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
Cases have tapered off since December.
So much so that Friday, Prisons Director Scott Frakes announced an easing of restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the disease and said it had been several weeks since any staff members or inmates tested positive for the coronavirus.
Vaccination clinics started in February for those over 65.
As of last week, about 2,000 inmates and 1,100 staff members had been vaccinated. Additional staff members may have been vaccinated in the community.
Formal, organized vaccination efforts are set to end in mid-June. After that, the prison will offer vaccinations to newly admitted inmates and new hires.
"From the start of the pandemic, NDCS has undertaken a concerted effort to manage COVID-19. It has involved everyone from agency leadership, medical services, purchasing, correctional industries, food service, facility wardens and certainly, front-line workers who interact directly with the inmate population," Frakes said.
He said prison systems operate around-the-clock, seven days a week. And most employees were on-site.
"Everyone has demonstrated significant commitment to tackling challenges brought by the virus," he said, crediting the inmates, too.
Frakes said the virus disrupted daily activities in many ways.
"They have had to roll with the changes as well, to protect other inmates and themselves from becoming sick," he said. "The collective effort has been nothing short of amazing."
The news came on the heels of a Journal Star review last week of transcripts of the grand jury investigations, which detailed when inmates were taken to a hospital, what they died from and, in some cases, underlying health issues at play.
In the first, Nebraska State Patrol investigator Amanda DeFreece said Lawrence White Jr., a 60-year-old inmate at the Lincoln Correctional Center died Dec. 9 as a result of acute respiratory failure as a consequence of COVID-19 pneumonia.
But before the questioning was through, a juror asked DeFreece about the protocols the prisons had for dealing with COVID-19.
"What are some of the steps taken there, you know, with the inmates that are there?" Juror Number 18 asked.
DeFreece said since she doesn't work there, she didn't know all the steps officials took.
The juror followed up, asking if the COVID-19 diagnoses were done at the penitentiary or at the hospital once patients were admitted.
DeFreece said the inmates are cared for at the prisons until they need additional support and care. Then, they are taken to a hospital.
Most of the six died there.
The reviews didn't include an investigation into how inmates had gotten COVID-19. But all of the six had been sentenced to prison years before the pandemic hit.
According to the Marshall Project, which is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons, 982 prison inmates in Nebraska — or 1 in 6 — have tested positive for COVID-19.
But Laura Strimple, a prison spokeswoman, said the positivity rate more accurately was 1 in 8 when taking into account that 2,700 inmates came or went during that time.
Compared to the state rate of 1 in 9.
Subsequently, she said, the death rate in NDCS was less than one per 1,000, while the general population rate was just over two per 1,000.
The first death, Henry Huff III, a 54-year-old inmate at the State Penitentiary, came on the morning of Sept. 18. By then, he'd been hospitalized for 15 days and was on a ventilator. On Sept. 17, his family told his doctor he wouldn't want life-saving interventions, like the ventilator, and to focus on relieving his symptoms.
DeFreece said since it was her unit's first COVID death investigation, she and two other investigators went to Bryan West's ICU, not 100% sure how, for their safety, they would need to address it.
"At the time that we arrived, we knew that he had been positive for the COVID-19 virus, and that was what we believed was most likely his cause of death," she said.
There was no autopsy ordered and no fingerprints taken or swabs taken, because of the diagnosis. The scene investigation was done in 20 minutes to limit the investigators' exposure.
"Investigatively, we tried to cut out, as much as possible, any contact that we would have either with the body or surfaces that would expose us or others to the COVID-19 virus," DeFreece said.
According to his doctor, Huff died of acute respiratory distress syndrome due to COVID-19 pneumonia.
Five others would follow in the next two months: 69-year-old Gregory Broussard on Oct. 18; 65-year-old James Cotton on Nov. 6; 79-year-old Arthur Lyle on Nov. 23; 74-year-old Gary Carter on Dec. 1; and White on Dec. 9.
Three were inmates at the State Penitentiary; Carter was an inmate at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, and White was an LCC inmate.
Two of the men, Cotton and Lyle, had been serving life sentences, both for murders in Omaha. Cotton was sentenced for killing his neighbor, Trevor Bare, on Aug. 7, 2015; and Lyle for killing his younger brother, John Gould, at an Omaha nursing home on Aug. 2, 1992.
Huff had been serving the shortest sentence, 9½ to 14½ years on burglary and gun charges out of Saunders and Lancaster counties, but was more than three years from parole when he died.
The cost of COVID: Remembering lives lost in Southeast Nebraska
They were teachers and farmers and factory workers and homemakers. They played the piano, fixed old cars, danced to the Beach Boys, cuddled their grandchildren.
They loved to ice fish, gab with friends, read, run marathons, bowl, wander antique stores.
They were our co-workers and neighbors and friends. Our parents. Our spouses.
They all have one thing in common. They died from COVID-19, a virus that arrived in Nebraska in March 2020, claiming its first life in Lancaster County a month later.
These stories represent a fraction of the lives lost in Southeast Nebraska, but they are our way of paying respect to each and every one.
We'd like to share the stories of others from Southeast Nebraska who have lost their lives to COVID-19. If you would like to have your loved one added to our online tribute, please email your contact information to: email@example.com
Roger A. Ryman, 70, died Oct. 20 from COVID-19. He was a cowboy in his younger years, but became a grandfather devoted to his Magnificent 7.
Jack Fields, 87, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 8. He spent his career fixing copy machines and making friends and creating memories for his children and grandchildren.
Phyllis "Phyl" Maly, 87, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 14. She was an artist, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and a woman at home in her own skin.
Beth Smith, 64, died of complications of COVID-19 on Jan. 20. The redheaded woman loved music and parties and adventure and was a loyal friend, sister, aunt and partner.
Lillian "Lil" Gibson, 61, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 2. The dialysis nurse and marathon runner was small but mighty with a big smile and warm personality.
Julie Koch: She taught us kids to be independent, strong, courteous, respectful and kind. Her pragmatic outlook on life earned her many friends wherever she was living or working. She rarely showed a temper, seeming to always take life in stride.
Wanda Darlene Hedges was a strong woman who raised her family on a farm near Bennet. Sometimes she worked at a nearby grocery store, but she was mostly a full-time mother.
Anna Sales, 69, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 6; four days later her husband Chuck Sales, 88, also died of the virus. The couple loved to bowl, travel, serve their church and listen to Elvis music.
Orva Samuelson, 95, died of COVID-19 on May 22. She and her late husband loved to dance and play cards and after she raised her daughter she became an Avon lady and turned customers into friends.
Tam Mai, 80, died of COVID-19 last May. The man from Vietnam was a protective big brother and a devoted son and grandfather who taught his grandchildren to study hard and be respectful.
Nadene Stull, 94, died Dec. 12 from complications of COVID-19. She lived a full life as a bookkeeper and mother of three sons who later went on to become a lay minister in the Methodist church.
Janet Ann Jodais, a caring mother known for her love of reading, crafting and church life, died Oct. 8 of COVID-19 in Lincoln at age 83.
This spring, the Journal Star set out to honor the lives of those lost to COVID-19. The families were eager to share the stories of those they loved.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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