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La Plata County Jail hit by first major COVID-19 outbreak

Forty-two suspected positive cases as of Friday
Of 135 inmates being housed Friday at the La Plata County Jail, 29 were suspected positive for COVID-19, along with 13 staff members, said Chandler Griffin, San Juan Basin Public Health spokesman. (Durango Herald file)

Forty-two suspected cases of COVID-19 among inmates and staff members mark the largest outbreak the La Plata County Jail has experienced since the pandemic started almost two years ago.

The first outbreak the county jail experienced occurred in July, but it consisted of only two confirmed cases among inmates, said San Juan Basin Public Health spokesman Chandler Griffin.

Of 135 inmates being housed Friday at the La Plata County Jail, 29 were suspected positive for COVID-19, along with 13 staff members, he said.

Twenty of those cases have been reported since Jan. 10, said Sheriff’s Office Lt. Mel Schaaf, who works with staff and inmates. Many of the inmates aren’t experiencing symptoms, and of those who are, none is severe enough to need hospitalization or outside medical services.

In-house medical staff members are monitoring inmates 24/7, he said.

The outbreak began with an inmate in the general population who started showing symptoms. Jail staff members tested him and the other inmates in his cellblock. After a few more positive tests, Schaaf said, the decision was made to test the entire jail population.

The testing process took three days and ended Friday.

Schaaf said there is enough space at the jail to put inmates in different areas based on if they have COVID-19, do not or are showing signs of a possible infection.

“As soon as the pandemic started, with the old portion of the jail we created a quarantine area,” he said.

Procedures during the pandemic

New inmates are tested as soon as they arrive at La Plata County Jail, Schaaf said. Inmates are also given a questionnaire to fill out that asks for possible exposures and what, if any, symptoms they may have.

If inmates have been exposed recently or are showing symptoms of COVID-19, they are isolated in a quarantine area.

If COVID-19 exposure occurs in a cellblock or if inmates test negative for the virus but are still displaying symptoms, they are moved into a separate area.

If inmates don’t have symptoms and test negative at intake, they go into yet another cellblock.

Finally, if inmates test positive, they are placed in a primary quarantine cellblock.

After five days in jail, inmates are tested again with a standard PCR test, Schaaf said. After the results are returned, usually two days later, a negative test sends an inmate off to the general population.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps since this happened, and we’re trying to squash it as fast as we can,” he said. “But this all kind of hit us this week and it’s been a scramble.”

Schaaf suspects the outbreak occurred because of how contagious omicron is and because inmates are exposed to the general public at times, such as when they attend court hearings or need to leave the jail for a medical appointment.

“So we can’t 100% keep them risk-free,” he said. “I believe that is how that actually ended up happening, that we got COVID in our jail this time.”

Jail staff members are tested using quick tests before every shift. If they test positive, they are sent home and replaced with another staff member.

Before the outbreak, visitation was allowed for volunteers and religious leaders, with masking requirements in effect, but now those activities have been shut down. The courts have allowed inmates to attend hearings virtually.

Tough times under COVID-19

Schaaf said the pandemic has been challenging for jail staff members. Being short staffed is common as well. Since Dec. 27, 18 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantined. Changing protocols have kept jail staff members on their toes for the last two years.

The jail has been in close contact with SJBPH since the pandemic started. The health department has worked with the jail to develop best practices and mitigate spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve actually been pulling in other deputies from other divisions to help fill the staffing challenge in the jail,” Schaaf said. “We’ve averaged between five and eight staff members a week that have tested positive for COVID.”

Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director, said La Plata County Jail has worked hard and in close conjunction with the health department to keep infection out of the jail population.

“It has been a tremendous effort that requires a lot of policy examination and resources,” she said.

She said it is important to protect jail populations because of how widely connected to the community they often are. Attorneys and staff visit jails, and often, inmates are incarcerated for only brief periods of time as they await hearings.

“It’s really important that jails don’t become hotbeds of infection, because it can endanger not just the inmates, but it endangers the community at large,” she said.

Griffin said SJBPH has assisted the jail through the pandemic with mitigation and outbreak response guidance, case tracking and quarantine procedures, and supplying N95 masks.

Jollon said the number of cases at the jail since Jan. 12 is an example of the omicron variant’s rapid transmission.

That this is only the second documented outbreak at the county jail is a testament to the jail staff’s commitment to public health and safety, she said. The jail has had an “extraordinarily” low amount of cases until this outbreak, she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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