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COVID-19 outbreak hits Douglas County Jail

Within a span of four days, 33 inmates had tested positive for the disease.

Government Center in Superior
Government Center, Superior, Wisconsin. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The Douglas County Jail has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak since late October.

Thirty-three inmates, roughly 24% of the jail population, have had positive tests for the virus since Oct. 26. It started with a few inmates who weren’t feeling well, according to jail administrator Tyler Edwards. One or two tested positive, and the unit was quarantined automatically.

“And then they went and tested everybody, and that’s how we came to the numbers we’re at,” he said.

The number of positive cases ballooned to 33 within four days.

The jail has had sporadic cases of the virus crop up since the pandemic began.

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“We caught it right away, isolated them, and it never became an issue,” said Edwards, a captain with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.
Every three or four months, he said, a few jailers will get exposed or test positive for the virus and be off work for quarantine. This was the first time a large group of inmates has tested positive.

“I’m not sure what happened, how it got where it got, but it did. Snuck through our defenses, which we’ve been pretty stringent about,” Edwards said.

The group has been quarantined since the outbreak began. As of Tuesday, Nov. 9, there were eight active cases of the virus in the jail. Edwards said they would be isolated through the end of the week. Another 21 inmates were under quarantine due to close contact exposure, but had not tested positive. Their quarantine is expected to end early next week. No new cases of the virus have been identified in the unit since the middle of last week, Edwards said.

In addition to the 33 inmates, five jailers have tested positive for COVID-19 since Oct. 26. Edwards said they were all vaccinated, which cut down their quarantine time. All but one were back at work Tuesday.

Vaccines

Medical staff at the jail provided COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates who wanted them in June, and offered them again in August. Edwards estimated about 100 inmates have received vaccines at the jail. He said they plan to offer vaccines again soon to catch any new inmates or transfers. All three vaccines are available — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — although the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot is recommended so recipients don’t have to worry about coming back for a second dose.

RELATED: Douglas County Jail poised to vaccinate inmates

Edwards said 22 of the 33 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 in the unit had been vaccinated.

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“I think that helped a lot with the seriousness of their illness. They’ve been monitored by our medical department, but we haven’t sent anyone to the hospital. Nobody has gotten that ill where they needed to go to the hospital,” Edwards said.

Safety protocol

Jail safety procedures have remained the same since the pandemic began. Groups of new inmates who come in on about the same timeline are quarantined together for a week, then tested for the virus.

“So every inmate coming in the jail will be tested before they get moved up to the general population,” Edwards said.

Jail officers are able to get tested for the virus as often as they want, but testing hasn’t been mandated. In the wake of the outbreak, staff were encouraged to test for the virus weekly, and so far everyone has done so, Edwards said.

Other COVID-19 protocols will remain in place. Jail staff and inmates are required to wear a mask unless they are in their own private cell or office. A temperature check is done on everyone who enters the jail. People with serious misdemeanors, felonies or warrants are booked, he said, but the number of less serious offenders being jailed is limited.

The isolation has been hard on inmates, the jail administrator said. They were able to communicate with their families via video visits, text and email from their cells during quarantine, but their freedom and socialization in the jail was restricted as they waited out the virus.

“We’d seen (outbreaks) happen in other jails all around us,” Edwards said. "We were hoping not. We were doing, I mean, everything we could possibly do to keep the inmates safe and from that happening, but these viruses are sneaky.”

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