AN INMATE at the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City has been infected with the coronavirus, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) said on Thursday, adding to concerns among activists about contagion risks in some of the world’s most overcrowded jails.

The male inmate from the New Bilibid Prison’s medium security compound had been confined at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine on Friday, bureau said in a social media post.

“As a precautionary measure, contact tracing was started on the day he was admitted at the RITM,” it added.

Forty inmates identified as close contacts of the patient had been isolated and transferred to a quarantine area. The medical staff member who attended to him was also quarantined.

Nineteen inmates and one prison staff at the Correctional Institute for Women earlier tested positive for COVID-19.

The Quezon City Jail has also reported 18 infections — nine inmates and nine staff members, while the Cebu City Jail in central Philippines reported that 123 inmates had been infected.

The mayor of Cebu City said a new building in the prison capable of handling 3,000 people would be used as an isolation facility to contain an outbreak that accounts for 40% of cases in the Philippines’ second biggest city.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) was among several groups that called for inmates held for minor, non-violent offences, or those with health conditions, to be freed from Philippine prisons to create more space.

Activists globally have been urging governments to free political prisoners.

HRW this month warned of the likelihood of a serious coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines “threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect.”

The Cebu jail outbreak is among the biggest known coronavirus clusters in the Philippines, which as of Thursday had 6,981 infections and 462 deaths.

The Department of Health reported 271 new coronavirus infections and 16 ore deaths on Thursday.

Twenty-nine more patients have gotten well, bringing the total recoveries to 722, it added.

Ms. Vergeire told a separate news briefing it was too early to tell whether the infection curve has flattened, even if the rate has slowed.

She noted that before, it took only three days for cases to double compared with five days now.

The country was headed toward flattening the curve if the doubling time extends to 30 days or more, Ms. Vergeire said, citing experts.

Philippine prisons are notoriously overcrowded due to a combination of poverty, high crime rates and a judicial system unable to cope with a huge case volume.

A shortage of public defenders, overwhelmed judges and insufficient funds to post bail means suspects typically spend long periods — sometimes years — in detention awaiting court hearings that often end up with acquittals.

As of December, nearly 90,000 people in the Philippines were detained awaiting trial, corrections bureau data showed.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs has exacerbated the problem, each year adding tens of thousands to jails, with 71% of inmates held on drug-related charges.

The Supreme Court urged trial judges on Monday to free prisoners eligible for temporary or early release.

Also yesterday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said at least 15,000 health workers were needed for emergency hiring for the government’s COVID-19 response.

The Budget department has approved the budget for the hiring, she told a news briefing, adding that seven health facilities have sought additional workforce. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas