Jail coronavirus outbreak

This file photo shows a front section of the Cecil County Detention Center in Elkton, where, as of Thursday, 23 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus since Friday.

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.

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