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Coronavirus outbreak hits CCDC; 23 inmates test positive

ELKTON — Twenty-three inmates at the Cecil County Detention Center have tested positive for coronavirus, as of Thursday, marking the second COVID-19 outbreak at the jail since October, according to CCDC Director Mary Allen.

“We do have an outbreak,” Allen confirmed, before qualifying, “They are quarantined together. They have zero to mild symptoms, and they are receiving excellent medical care twice a day.”

As of Thursday, the total number of inmates at CCDC was 289, well above the jail’s 200-inmate capacity, Allen reported, noting that the figure does not include five inmates who are currently in the work-release section of the facility. Overflow inmates are housed in the detention center’s gymnasium, where they sleep on bunks, commonly called “boats,” according to Allen.

The outbreak was discovered on April 9 when five inmates tested positive for coronavirus, which prompted jail medical staff to conduct contact-tracing queries and additional testing, Allen said. By Monday, she added, the number of inmates with coronavirus had climbed to 20, before reaching 23 on Wednesday. That number held steady on Thursday.

When the five inmates tested positive on last week, there was only one inmate housed on one of the special tiers designated for prisoners with coronavirus.

“There was one guy on the ‘positive tier’, which meant I had 19 beds that I could not use,” Allen said, pointing out that each tier has 20 beds.

Nineteen of the inmates who have tested positive for coronavirus in the past week have been moved to that tier, joining that sole inmate — which, by happenstance, helped mitigate the overflow situation, according to Allen. The other four inmates who have tested positive were moved to another designated tier, she reported.

In addition to areas, or tiers, for the general inmate population in CCDC, there are tiers reserved for those who have tested positive for coronavirus and tiers and areas for those who are in quarantine – all to achieve preventative separation, Allen explained.

This marks the second outbreak at the detention since October, when 71 inmates and eight staff members tested positive for coronavirus. Between Oct. 9 and Oct. 13, mass testing was performed at the jail after correctional officers started experiencing mild symptoms of the virus. Of the 302 tests administered, 217 came back negative. During that time period, the jail’s inmate population was approximately 230.

The outbreak in October and this latest one occurred despite numerous preventative measures that were implemented at CCDC on March 16, 2020, when Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the closing of all non-essential businesses in Maryland after the pandemic had infiltrated this state.

Some of those preventative measures were upgraded later at the jail, which has been operating in lockdown status for the past 13 months because of the pandemic. For example, during the early months of the pandemic, when COVID-19 tests were not readily available, arrestees arriving at CCDC booking were screened only by taking their temperatures. Now every incoming inmate at CCDC receives at least two tests during the intake process, Allen pointed out.

The following is a list of some of those preventative measures at the jail:

* Halting inmate visitation and inmate programs conducted by community groups and organizations.

* Checking the temperatures of anyone wanting to enter the detention center, including staff.

* Quarantining of new inmates entering CCDC for 14 days, which is done in two seven-day phases.

* Barring of law enforcement officers in the booking area, unless absolutely necessary. Along those lines, inmates are dropped off in the garage/sally port area and met by correctional officers.

* Providing masks to staff and inmates, which they are mandated to wear if near other individuals.

* Regularly educating inmates as to the current events.

* Increasing the availability of inmate phone calls.

Chief Deputy Gerald Widdoes of the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the detention center operation, told the Cecil Whig last spring that jail officials “worked diligently with out community partners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He listed those community partners as Cecil County COVID-19 Task Force, Cecil County Health Department, Maryland Correctional Administrators Association, Cecil County State’s Attorney’s Office, Cecil County Office of the Public Defender, Cecil County Circuit Court and District Court judges, Cecil County Department of Emergency Services and Prime Care, which is CCDC’s contracted medical provider.

Allen outlined that incoming inmates are tested for coronavirus in the jail’s booking area during intake before the ones with negative results are quarantined for seven days in a designated area in that section and those who tested positive are transferred to isolated areas for inmates with the virus.

After the seven-day quarantine period in booking, the recent arrivals are tested again, Allen said. If they test negative, she added, they are quarantined for an additional seven days before they are moved into the detention center’s general population.

“They have to have two negatives, back to back,” Allen said.

A relatively recent addition to the intake process, according to Allen, every inmate fills out a questionnaire to determine his or her desire to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, which have been available at the detention center since January.

“If they want to be vaccinated, we get them vaccinated,” Allen said.

Vaccinations are not mandatory and, as of Thursday, 55 inmates – of the 78 that initially had expressed interest during intake – have been vaccinated at their request, she reported.

Should the number of inmates testing positive for coronavirus continue to climb, even above the peak reached in October, jail officials have contingency plans in place to ensure that there will be enough quarantine areas inside the detention center, Allen said, noting that they would hinge on intense and frequent cleaning and relocating inmates.

“We have all been been masked-up and operating in a lockdown status for 13 months now, and I don’t see this going away anytime soon. There is no end in sight. We have preventative measures in place, and we are doing everything that we can and the best that we can,” Allen said. “The top priority is always the safety of our detention center staff and our inmates.”

Amid the hardships created by the pandemic, which involves using much-needed space to quarantine arriving arrestees and inmates with coronavirus, CCDC officials continue to deal with overcrowding at the detention center — a problem that has existed there for the past several years.

“There are more inmates coming in than going out,” Allen commented.

On Tuesday, eight new inmates were booked into the jail while only three were released, she reported, giving one of numerous, recent one-day differentials to illustrate how the influx of inmates at CCDC is heavier than the output.

CCPS awards contract to design new North East Middle School

NORTH EAST — The Cecil County Public Schools Board of Education approved a resolution to award a $2.2 million contract to Grimm & Parker Architects of Beltsville, Md., to design the new North East Middle School.

The new school will be built adjacent to the current North East high school building on Irishtown Road. If the county and state agree to fund the project this fall, construction will begin as early as July 2022, with students using the building as early as the 2024-25 school year.

The current middle school was first built in 1932 as a high school, before becoming a middle school in 1972.

“We’re really happy for the North East community,” said Perry Willis, executive director for support services for CCPS. “It’s been a long time coming.”

A seven-member committee reviewed 25 submissions from firms interested in the project, choosing six to interview at the Cecil County School of Technology. The top four firms submitted priced proposals.

The committee was made up of a variety of positions, including Jessica Owens, a teacher at North East whose children attend the school; Board Vice President Diana Hawley and Willis.

Willis said applicants needed to show experience with building schools and with the process of submitting designs for state approval.

“The state has skin in the game,” Willis said, noting that the state would fund about two thirds of production costs. “They want to know what we’re doing. If you don’t have a firm that’s familiar with that process, it can slow you down.”

Grimm and Parker recently completed the Havre de Grace Middle/High School in Harford County. The firm’s commitment to receiving input from the community on the design stood out compared to other applicants.

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CCPS to expand — and possibly make permanent — virtual learning program

ELKTON — Cecil County Public Schools is set to receive $28 million over the next three years from the American Rescue Plan, which was passed by Congress in March.

This additional money, combined with funds from the previous stimulus bill, means that the county can fund a myriad of improvements, including an expanded virtual program for students next year, that could become a permanent option for Cecil County families.

“It’s really just an amazing opportunity to do some things we think in the school system that needs to be done,” said CCPS Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson. “ The first thing that jumps off my mind is that we plan on having a virtual program for students next year, regardless of what happens with COVID.”

CCPS plans for the program to consist of 15 teachers overseen by one administrator, though staff counts may change depending on student interest. The program will be available to all students in the district, though Lawson said the primary audience is students in grades four and up.

Around 4,000 students are currently fully virtual, even as the district has reopened to four days of in person learning a week. A sizable portion of these students have improved their academic performance through the pandemic. Teachers say introverted students and students who struggle with bullying benefit from online instruction.

Many students who suffer from chronic illnesses or those staying in long-term hospital care could also benefit from virtual learning.

Lawson said the online program could help entice some of the around 500 students who left CCPS back to public schools. A major possible appeal to the program is that students who take classes virtually would still have a “home school” based on their address, where they can participate in extracurricular activities such as theatre or sports.

“If we put together a virtual program effectively, all of a sudden, a child who’s virtual at Elkton High School can play basketball for the team,” said Lawson. “We have over 1,000 families in the county who have selected homeschool, and we are really going to make a concerted effort to provide those families with a virtual option that would be free of charge.”

Every student involved with the program will receive a Chromebook and a hotspot. Lawson said he sees the program sustaining itself even once the CARES act funding ends.

“I certainly see the program sustaining beyond CARES money,” said Lawson. “There are a handful of things that we’ve learned throughout this last year that will make public education better, and I think this is one of them. I see this being a long term endeavor that’ll be in place forever.”

Outside of the virtual program, the federal money will offset potential layoffs caused by a reduction in student enrollment. The district has lost 7.7 percent of it’s staff since 2009.

“Your typical parent or community member in the school system will most likely see either smaller class sizes or maintaining already low class sizes,” said Lawson.

CCPS will also be able to make several part-time positions into full-time ones and reverse previous cuts. Currently several elementary schools, such as Cecilton, Chesapeake City, Bainbridge and Charlestown employ part-time assistant principals. CARES will enable the county to give each institution a full-time assistant principal.

“You’ll see us doing is going back and trying to remedy some of the position cuts we’ve made both at the teacher level, the support level, and the administrative levels,” said Lawson.

The district plans to spend the stimulus equally over the next three years, totaling $14.5 million a year, or 6 to 7 percent of the current total annual budget, or around 17 percent of the county’s annual contribution to the school budget. The most recent relief act has few restrictions compared to the first two relief acts, allowing the school to fund a wide variety of projects.

“There’s a level of need among some of our students that will necessitate significant money to really remedy,” said Lawson. “I know it has all kinds of federal budget implications, but from a strictly local school system perspective, it’s the kind of money that’s needed to have a real impact.”

The Frazer Tunnel looking northward.

Frazer Tunnel Looking North — E. Jenkins.jpg

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Five charged in Cecil County jail drug smuggling case

ELKTON — Detectives have charged five people allegedly involved in an operation to smuggle drugs through the mail to inmates in the Cecil County Detention Center, ending a five-month-long investigation, according to the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the CCDC.

As of Thursday, charges were pending against two other suspects, police reported.

The investigation started in November, after CCDC correctional officers gained information that some inmates were receiving illegal drugs inside mail sent to them and they, in turn, notified CCSO’s Criminal Investigation Unit, according to Lt. Michael Holmes, an agency spokesman.

“It was not an undercover operation, per se, but a lot of investigative techniques were used,” Holmes said.

CCSO Det. John Lines, lead investigator, told the Cecil Whig that surveillance was conducted at the jail to determine which inmates might be involved. Lines and Holmes declined to specify how the surveillance was conducted, to avoid compromising future investigations.

Police said the surveillance operation, along with the “intel received” in November, enabled investigators to develop suspects — five of whom are inmates, police said.

The sixth suspect charged in the case is a former CCDC inmate, and he has been identified as one of the mail senders, police added. The seventh suspect, who has yet to be charged, also has been identified by investigators as a mail sender, police clarified.

Then investigators monitored the incoming mail addressed to the inmates who had been developed as suspects, according to Lines, who commented, “We flagged their mail.”

LSD and, or, Suboxone were found inside the flagged mail, Holmes reported.

To make it more difficult for people to find ways to send contraband to CCDC inmates through the mail in the future, Holmes and Lines declined to elaborate on how incoming mail addressed to county jail prisoners is normally sorted and checked at the facility.

“It’s common knowledge that inmates try to smuggle contraband into the detention center. They’re always trying to come up with new ways to do it, and the correctional officers stay on top of it,” Holmes said.

One of the two people identified as suspects who allegedly mailed contraband to CCDC inmates is Keith Wesley Smith, 28, of the 200 block of Bard Cameron Road near Rising Sun, police reported.

Smith is facing seven charges, including distribution of narcotics and multiple counts of contraband delivery, according to Cecil County District Court records.

Holmes and Lines reported that the following CCDC inmates are each charged with conspiracy to deliver contraband and possession of contraband in a place of confinement: Mariano Garcia Cruz, 34; Charles Henry Ford, 32 and Anthony Philip Maniscalco, 36.

The other inmate — Lamont Edward Hall Sr., 45 — is charged only with conspiracy to deliver contraband, police reported.

The sign at Cline Mum Farm and Greenhouse on Blake Road north of Elkton says it all about this family owned farm.

The Cecil County Health Department has administered 19,722 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in clinics across Cecil County. The department plans to stream line

Cecil County now has its own COVID vaccine registry

Rising Sun's mayor and commissioners approved an annexation for an easement to start the project of connected 11 homes with tainted wells on Wilson Road onto the town water and sewer system