West Nile virus found at Utah state prison built on prime mosquito habitat

Staff and inmates have been inundated with mosquitoes since the facility opened in 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City. The prison was built on prime mosquito habitat, and officials announced late last week that a West Nile virus-positive mosquito pool was found at the facility.

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Mosquitoes at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City have tested positive for West Nile virus, corrections officials announced late last week.

Prison officials have responded by encouraging inmates and staff to take preventive measures, such as applying bug repellent and wearing pants, long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes to avoid mosquito bites, according to a Friday news release from the Department of Corrections.

Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District executive director Ary Faraji said in the release that the infected mosquitoes don’t pose an “immediate threat” but added, “given the prison’s close proximity to the mosquito habitat and potentially infected mosquitoes, we want to ensure that everyone continues to be vigilant.”

As of Monday, corrections staff hadn’t publicly announced any West Nile cases in people at the prison. A spokesperson did not immediately return a Salt Lake Tribune request Monday about whether anyone had tested positive.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mosquito abatement trap is pictured near the Utah State Correctional Facility on Oct. 11, 2022.

Staff will monitor inmates and others for signs of the virus, Dr. Michelle Hofmann, executive medical director for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees medical services at the prison, said in the release.

While many experience no symptoms, those infected can experience head and body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes, according to the health and human services department. A small percentage of people infected suffer spinal cord and brain inflammation, which can be life-threatening.

Lotion-based bug repellent is now free and available to inmates, corrections officials announced in July. Inmates didn’t have access to repellent during the prison’s first summer of operation last year, and relatives and advocates told The Tribune inmates were “getting eaten alive.”

[Read more: Inmates ‘getting eaten alive’ by insects at new Utah prison. Officials knew it could happen, records show.]

Inmates in lower-security areas can now access repellent and apply it themselves, while staff will provide it to those in restricted units before they go to outside recreation yards. Repellent is also available for purchase at the prison commissary, according to the news release.

Mosquitoes have been an issue at the prison since before it began housing inmates in July 2022, because the facility was built upon mosquito habitat in ecologically sensitive wetlands near Great Salt Lake.

Last year, the prison relied primarily on pesticides to mitigate mosquitoes, but all those chemicals worried environmentalists, concerned about how they could impact humans and wildlife. For instance, too few insects would harm the wetland ecosystem that millions of birds rely on and damage Great Salt Lake itself.

After that first mosquito season at the new site, lawmakers allocated $300,000 to help remedy the prison’s mosquito problems.

Corrections staff have since been trained to apply larvicide to bodies of water around the facility to kill mosquito larva before they mature, helping with abatement measures, the release said.