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York County Launches Inquiry Into Outbreak At Jail That's Sickened Dozens

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
The York County Jail in Alfred.

Beginning Thursday, York County is undertaking "a comprehensive, independent inquiry" into the COVID-19 outbreak at the county jail. The outbreak has been linked to a wedding in Millinocket last month.

York County Manager Greg Zinser said clearly established protocols for county workers have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, including the mandatory use of face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But until the first positive case was reported at the jail August 19, the use of face masks was optional for corrections staff.

"We intend to find out what occurred in that regard," Zinser said. "If, in this case, the county-required practices were not followed, we will find out how and why that occurred and deal with it."

In a briefing with reporters, Zinser declined to speculate on who might be held accountable for any failure to comply with the guidance.

York County Sheriff William King was not in attendance and has declined to be interviewed about the jail's outbreak of COVID-19, one of the largest outbreaks in the state since the beginning of the pandemic.

As of Thursday morning, 46 inmates, 18 staff, a contractor and 17 family members and other close contacts have tested positive.

"Those inmates are in quarantine within the facility and they are housed in single cells in what we'll call our 'enhanced medical unit.' Those are where we're keeping those inmates at this point in time," Zinser said.

Eight of the inmates were diagnosed in the last 24 hours, and Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah said there is a concerning aspect of their infection.

"These eight new cases among inmates are in a different part of the jail, an area of the jail where there had not previously been cases."

So far, the inmates and staff who have tested positive are experiencing mild, flu-like symptoms and have not required hospitalization, but Zinser said he deeply regrets the situation and is committed to resolving it.

With just over 100 inmates at the jail, nearly half of them have now tested positive.

Unlike the York County Jail, the Maine State Prison System has had only a few positive cases of COVID-19, and Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty attributes the low numbers to planning, training and guidance from the Maine CDC. Liberty said the jail's outbreak illustrates the importance of personal protective equipment, as well as requiring screenings and temperature checks for anyone coming through the door.

"We've had four positive cases with our 1700 inmates in six facilities," Liberty said, "And what Dr. Shah and his team have guided us to do has been very effective, and we want to share those practices with York County and help them overcome this pandemic."

Prior to the outbreak, Liberty said his department had been aggressively working with the jails doing extensive training and webinars. And beginning this week, inspections of all jails and other correctional facilities in the state will be undertaken to address any potential shortcomings related to transmission of the virus. A report on those findings is expected next week.

"There's some level of independence that the sheriffs and the jail administrators and the county commissioners have to run their own facilities," Liberty said. "The best I can do is provide technical assistance, PPE, training and awareness."

Updated 4:56 p.m. September 3, 2020