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Most inmates at county jail test positive for COVID-19
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Most inmates at county jail test positive for COVID-19

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Jail

An inmate sleeps on a temporary bed on the floor because no bunks are available Friday, July 13, 2018, at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho.

TWIN FALLS — Most of the inmates in Twin Falls County Jail have now tested positive for COVID-19.

Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lori Stewart said a total of 183 inmates tested positive since the outbreak was discovered in late July — about 60% of the roughly 300 tests.

One male inmate was sent to the emergency room late last week after becoming acutely ill from COVID-19. The man is no longer in jail custody after he was released on his own recognizance.

“I am proud of how our administration, detention and medical staff have handled this situation thus far,” Sheriff Tom Carter said in a statement. “Considering our limitations for space, and the enclosed atmosphere, I don’t know how we could have responded any differently.”

Jail Cpt. Doug Hughes said more than 90% of inmates who tested positive have not shown any symptoms for the virus. He said everyone in the facility is monitored for symptoms daily, including temperature checks.

“Other than they have a positive test for the virus, they’re not unhealthy,” Hughes said. “If they start to build symptoms, we will treat the symptoms moving forward.”

One inmate is currently sick and 81 are still within the 10-14 day symptom monitoring window. Medical staff reported a maximum of 10 inmates have shown symptoms on any given day. Those who do are isolated from the rest of the population and provided “the same standard as in the community for treating people that have symptoms,” Hughes said.

It’s uncommon to have so few asymptomatic cases, South Central Public Health District spokesperson Brianna Bodily said. Jail officials conduct their own disease investigations and report the results to the health district, she said.

“It is not uncommon for symptoms to change throughout the course of this disease and we may find that several more people originally listed as asymptomatic will begin to show symptoms,” she said.

A total of eight staff members tested positive and none have shown symptoms; one is still in the monitoring window. Positive jail staff continued to work during the outbreak.

Bodily said Center for Disease Control guidelines strongly encourage everyone who tests positive to stay home until they are no longer infectious. She said recommendations for asymptomatic workers are less clear, and the health district has reached out to state epidemiologists for guidance.

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“We do not recommend that asymptomatic individuals who have tested positive ever work around or come into contact with individuals who have not tested positive,” Bodily said.

The jail facility is meant for 194 inmates but currently houses 266. Extra inmates are forced to sleep on the floor.

The overcrowding has made isolating positive cases difficult, especially since inmates are grouped by security classification. When the initial rounds of test results came in, officials said they were unable to isolate the positive asymptomatic cases from the negative.

Bodily said isolation in that situation is ideal but not all jails have the necessary space to do so. She said chances are extremely high that those who tested negative in a positive cellblock were already carrying the disease.

“The concern in moving that person to another area is that they may be carrying the disease but did not have enough of the virus in their system at the time of the sample to test positive,” she said. “If that person is moved to a cellblock with people who have not been exposed, those other inmates could be put at higher risk."

Hughes said it would be difficult to control the outbreak in the facility even if it weren’t overcrowded.

“There’s not much you can do inside of a jail environment to require social distancing,” he said. “You can do things, but inside that cell unit, they’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Hughes said local law enforcement is attempting to issue more citations and avoid bringing people to jail if possible. Those who do end up as new detainees are tested and isolated until they can be safely introduced to the rest of the population, he said.

Many in the facility are awaiting trial. Twin Falls County prosecutor Grant Loebs said his office is in the process of reviewing non-violent inmates who are in jail because they couldn’t make bond. Loebs said they are still early in the process and none have been identified for release so far.

“We are doing everything we can to try to help the sheriff reduce the population without any threat to the community,” he said.

A plan is also being developed to remove the 94 inmates in the facility under the jurisdiction of Idaho Department of Correction, spokesman Jeff Ray said.

“We are working with state infectious disease control experts to develop guidelines for safely moving state-sentenced prisoners from county jails without further spreading the disease.”

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