MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – We are getting our first look at what may have contributed to one of the state’s worst COVID outbreaks inside a prison.

From dust build-up in air ducts and filters to water leaks, WCCO has obtained the results of an air quality assessment inside the Stillwater facility. Nearly 80% of the incarcerated population at the Stillwater facility has tested positive for the virus.

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Of the nearly 1,200 inmates inside the Stillwater prison, 994 have tested positive for COVID-19 since September, along with nearly 200 staff members.

“The vast majority did at one point in time test positive,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell admitted.

One inmate with pre-existing conditions died and five more remain hospitalized.

“It’s heart wrenching to know we operate a system where this has happened,” he added.

The state paid $75,000 to take a closer look at the air quality inside 10 correctional facilities.

Stillwater’s 24-page report shows all but one of 20 swab samples tested received a fail or caution rating.

“This review and analysis helped us look at and think about things that we may not have otherwise addressed,” Schnell said.


Industrial Hygiene Services Corporation went to work for three days last month documenting different areas of dust build-up in air ducts and filters. They examined the HVAC system in different cell blocks and swabbed high-touch surfaces.

“We have to recognize Stillwater in particular is over 100 years old,” Schnell said.

As suspected, Schnell said turning the heat on this fall played a role in the spread — blowing air through open bar doors.

“This also brings to light what happens when you’re not investing into that system in the long haul,” he added.

But even more, Schnell pointed to $600 million in deferred maintenance through all DOC facilities as another factor in the findings. Stillwater has implemented new cleaning protocols and made changes where they could.

“What we learn from these assessments can make a difference not just in COVID but as we go forward,” he said.

The findings of the nine other facility reports should be available in the next week or two.


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Liz Collin