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Lewis and Clark Co. jail sees second COVID-19 outbreak

Capt. Alan Hughes passes through a door at the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center.

Capt. Alan Hughes passes through a door at the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center.

The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center reported six new COVID-19 infections within its walls, including one detention officer.

Capt. Alan Hughes of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office said a female inmate who began exhibiting symptoms of the potentially deadly virus was quickly tested and determined to be positive. He said the remaining women in her pod were then tested, and four others received positive results as well. 

The officer reported not feeling well and was immediately tested and sent home, according to Hughes. The officer's test results were also positive, and that officer will remain on leave.

Hughes said several other women within the pod did not contract the virus, which complicates the jail's response. 

"We have some that are negative," Hughes said in an interview Wednesday. "That's the big juggle right there."

He said all infected and non-infected inmates within the women's pod are on lockdown for the next two weeks and are only allowed outside of the pod for an hour of recreation per day.

Hughes said the five infected inmates will be allowed to use the pod's common area, including the shower, phone and television, for two hours a day. Detention officers will then disinfect the area and allow the remaining inmates to use the common area to prevent further spread of the virus, he said. 

That "juggle" has added to the already increased workload. Hughes said the staff currently disinfects the entire jail with disinfectant sprays and towels.

In an effort to improve sanitation efforts and streamline the work, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office has requested nearly $21,000 in grant money from the Montana Board of Crime Control to purchase a cordless electrostatic sprayer and other items, including test kits, a fingerprint machine and a "free-standing temperature check kiosk."

In the grant application, the sheriff's office wrote that the "purchase of an Electrostatic Sprayer to disinfect surface areas rather than using a towel (that technically transfers the germs from one area to another) will be more efficient in disinfecting surface areas."

"Having that disinfectant equipment is a priority," Sheriff Leo Dutton said in an interview Thursday.

The grant application also stated that any "updates or upkeep" required for the equipment requested in the grant funding will be incorporated into the sheriff's operating budget going forward.

Dutton said he expects a decision on the grant funding within two weeks, and that his office can purchase the equipment as soon as approval is granted. 

Hughes said the new equipment could also be used to disinfect squad cars delivering sick arrestees. 

The new infections come less than two months after a COVID-19 outbreak that infected nine individuals in the jail, including seven employees.

Since then, Hughes said arrestees being processed are now quarantined in holding cells and tested for COVID-19 prior to being placed within the general population.

The captain said the inmate who spread the virus to the pod in this latest outbreak was tested during intake and received a false negative result.

A little more than $4,000 of the sheriff's $21,000 ask has been earmarked for the purchase of flu and COVID-19 rapid test kits that Hughes said will make a big difference in his staff's ability to mitigate the spread.

"If we can run a test and get the results back within 15 minutes, we'll have a much better sense of things," he said.

Lewis and Clark Public Health spokesman Damian Boudreau said in an email "LCPH continues to be in contact with detention center medical staff and supervisors to ensure their plan is effectively implemented."

According to Boudreau, the health department will consider the current outbreak over when the detention center has gone at least 14 days without a new infection. The strategy to determine when the outbreak has ended will include testing staff and inmates every seven days.


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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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