Officials: No COVID-19 in jails, prison; Malheur County screening inmates

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, right, speaks with Kent Sandquist, physicians assistant from Malheur Memorial Health Clinic during a media tour of the jail in January of 2018. The jail is now screening inmates for COVID-19.

ONTARIO — After a younger inmate died on Saturday at Snake River Correctional Institution, it wasn’t long before the local rumor mill pointed to novel coronavirus COVID-19 as the cause.

HIPPA rules prohibit Oregon Department of Corrections from disclosing protected health information about inmates, including the cause of death, which will be later determined by a medical examiner.

A tipper from Washington state who had been in contact with another inmate altogether at SRCI reached out to us after finding out he had been presenting flu-like symptoms and that some people had been quarantined.

On Sunday, we covered a story about SRCI and other prisons throughout the state not having any cases of COVID-19, but we hadn’t checked on other diseases.

So we reached back out, and following is what we learned.

The prison has been treating inmates with the flue and flu-like symptoms for about a week, according to an email from Amber Campbell, public information officer for the facility.

“Since March 4, 2020 there have been 11 AICs [adults in custody] who presented with flu like symptoms, and three have tested positive for the flu,” wrote Campbell in an email update on Tuesday. “As of today, only one AIC is on quarantine status in his cell (he is one of the three who tested positive for the flu).”

Campbell did not say what strain of flu the inmate tested for.

She said that the Department of Corrections began administering flu vaccines to those who wanted it in the fall of 2019; with 52% of inmates throughout the state opting to get the vaccination.

“At SRCI we had a 50% rate of AICs who opted to receive the flu vaccine,” Campbell reported. “We continue to offer the flu vaccination to all AICs at SRCI.”

This was a higher rate than the community uptake of the vaccine reported by the CDC in 2017-18 to be 37%.

“In all areas of the intuition (including the Call Center) we are enhancing our sanitation/cleaning approach. Areas are being cleaned and sanitized multiple times a day with a cleaning sanitizer. Surfaces and door handles are being sanitized. Equipment used by staff (keys, radios, phones etc.) are being cleaned before and after each use.

“We are sanitizing the Visiting Center, including doors, door handles, tables, chairs, toys and games,” she continued.

Visiting has been open as usual at SRCI, Campbell reports, though urges those visitors who do not feel well to use precaution when visiting.

The SRCI Medium Custody Visiting Center is closed on Monday and Tuesday weekly, and is open on Saturday and Sunday at our SRCI Minimum Facility

“At SRCI we are under normal operations,” said Campbell.

Malheur County Jail is screening inmates; force being considered for quarantines

As for the Malheur County Jail, there haven’t been any cases of COVID-19 crop up; however, Sheriff Brian Wolfe said a new procedure is in place to minimize the risk of that.

“We are working on a screening tool,” he said. “This includes screening an arriving inmate for symptoms, and so if a person is demonstrating symptoms then we are going to not accept that person until they’ve been cleared by a doctor.”

This includes any inmate arriving by deputy or being transported into the jail from a local police department who exhibits symptoms; it will be up to the agency to get the inmate cleared, he said.

A similar procedure is already in place for people being brought in with too high of blood alcohol or serious injuries.

What if one of his deputies gives a ride to someone who ends up exhibiting systems? Wolfe said there is no policy in place yet, but there would be obvious precautions they would want to take.

“We don’t want all of our team members exposed to it if we can help it nor want our deputies out making contact with the public [if they’ve been exposed],” the sheriff said.

Another hot topic among law enforcement in Oregon right now, according to Wolfe, is how to deal with people who are ordered by the Health Department to be quarantined, but refuse to do so.

While the majority of people will self-quarantine, there is concern that some people may refuse. As such, Wolfe said conversations are starting about what officers would be able to do, such as restrain a person or use force if it came down to it.

But, he said, the jail wouldn’t be the place to take them, because it wouldn’t be a crime unless they assaulted a public safety officer or if it were in contempt of court.

“It’s kind of interesting how far and wide this thing is going,” Wolfe said.

Payette County following CDC recommendations

It’s business as usual for the Payette County Jail as there are no COVID-19 cases in the jail or Payette County, and the situation is being monitored regularly.

“We’ve gotten some documentation and recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Southwest District Health, and that has had recommendations for correction facilities,” said Payette County Sheriff’s Lt. Andy Creech.

That information has been passed on to jail commanders, he said, and in the meantime “we’re just doing the same things we do to keep illnesses from spreading — using those same protocols.”

Furthermore there is a doctor who comes in several times a week to check out inmates. No tests have been given to current inmates at the jail as no symptoms have presented.

In the case symptoms do come up, the doctor will be taking care of needed testing.

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