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7 more virus cases confirmed at county jail in Helena

7 more virus cases confirmed at county jail in Helena

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Inmates use the phone and watch television in the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center

Inmates use the phone and watch television in the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office announced in a news release Friday that seven additional COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the county jail, bringing the total to nine. 

According to the news release, six of the seven new cases are staff working in Lewis and Clark County Detention Center. The seventh is an inmate.

The knowledge of the new infections come as a result of facility-wide testing conducted following the discovery of two other infections, an officer and an inmate, earlier in the week.

The jail must now deal with a total of at least seven infected detention officers and at least two inmates. According to the news release sent Friday afternoon, only about half of the test results have been returned.

Lewis and Clark Public Health Disease Control Division Administrator Eric Merchant confirmed in an interview Friday afternoon that such a level of transmission within a congregate setting like the jail constitutes an outbreak.

"If that is indeed the situation, that is an outbreak," Merchant said, adding that he has yet to be briefed on the topic. "We're in the middle of those investigations."

In an interview Friday, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said he still feels the facility has a good plan in place to mitigate any further spread of the deadly virus.

"The precautions we're taking are better than you'd find anywhere," Dutton said.

He added that the first inmate to test positive, which was discovered Wednesday, has been incarcerated within the facility since February.

"I don't know where he got it," Dutton said, adding that he is anxious to hear from the LCPH contact tracers already at work on the jail's cases.

The second inmate to test positive is within a separate pod of inmates, meaning two pods totaling 14 inmates are now on lockdown within the jail. They will only be allowed out of their pods for an hour a day for legally mandated recreation time.

Merchant said the more than 30% increase in the jail's population from its lowest point around the end of March is a concern for LCPH.

"We have been in contact about re-implementing strategies" aimed at reducing the number of inmates at the detention center, Merchant said. He added that Public Health Officer Drenda Niemann "has been in direct contact with the county attorney, and we've provided insight to somehow limit the number of people we are jailing."

Dutton said he does not intend to release anyone currently jailed in the detention center.

"I am not going to ask that any inmates be released," he said.

The seven detention officers who tested positive were asymptomatic and have since been sent home to quarantine.

With 56 total employees at the detention center, Dutton said the infected officers represent about one person per shift.

"We are able to absorb that," he said about staffing at the jail. "We'll see what the rest of the test results come back with."

The news comes after LCPH announced the county set a new daily record of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. 

Merchant said LCPH feels as though its current course of action is adequate, but that the support of the community is integral to its effectiveness.

"Our community compliance is not good," he said. "We continue to struggle with face coverings, and we continue to struggle with events."

Merchant said large events are being held within the county despite LCPH's prohibition. He said that some events like recent music concerts are posing as protests to circumvent LCPH guidelines.

He also said the law enforcement aspect is "lagging behind."

"We're dealing with human nature here," Merchant said. "People are really over this, but this is not over."

Merchant warned that it is more important than ever to take the utmost precautions to protect against COVID-19.

"It's really time to be careful," he said.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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