More than a week after Maine’s largest coronavirus outbreak at a correctional facility had erupted at the York County Jail in Alfred last month, some of the state’s 14 other jails still weren’t requiring all staff, visitors and inmates to wear masks, even though the practice has increasingly been seen as critical to preventing outbreaks.
One county jail, the Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta, wasn’t screening staff members for COVID-19 symptoms or checking their temperatures when they came to work.
And a majority of county jails hadn’t made all the arrangements recommended to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 if they happened, such as designating another facility where newly arrested inmates could be sent or creating plans to rapidly test all inmates and staff for the disease.
Those are some of the findings from Maine Department of Corrections staff who visited every other county lockup in the state as the outbreak at the York County Jail spiraled into more than 80 cases among inmates, staff and their relatives. The outbreak started after a jail employee attended a now-infamous Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area and brought it back to work.
The Bangor Daily News obtained a report detailing those inspection results through a public records request.
The Department of Corrections doesn’t run Maine’s county jails, but it stepped up oversight of them following the York County Jail outbreak, requiring that each jail develop a coronavirus-specific infection control plan and submit it to state health officials.
In addition, the department sent staff members to all of the county facilities in late August and early September to evaluate their adherence to precautions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and their preparations for an outbreak.
While the objective of the department’s visits was to identify practices the jails needed to change, Department of Corrections staff “saw many positive practices in each facility,” department spokesperson Anna Black said. “MDOC staff met with well-intentioned and caring staff and inmates who were knowledgeable about and were implementing best practices to reduce and manage COVID-19.”
Jails and prisons have been the sites of some of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. But correctional facilities in Maine had largely escaped a similar fate before the York County Jail outbreak. While there had been a few other small clusters of COVID-19 at Maine correctional facilities none had produced more than a handful of cases.
In York County, state officials have identified a few shortcomings that contributed to the state’s largest outbreak in a correctional setting, including that management didn’t screen staff for COVID-19 symptoms each day, didn’t mandate that staff or inmates wear face masks and didn’t have plans to divert newly arrested inmates to another jail during the early part of the disease flareup.
The new report did not include information specifically about the York County Jail, and that county has still not completed its own inquiry into the jail’s adherence to protocols for preventing and containing outreaks.
The inspections of Maine’s 14 other county jails showed that many of them were screening staff for fevers and other symptoms associated with COVID-19, sometimes with multiple temperature checks per shift. But many facilities did not ask their employees additional revealing questions, such as whether they had traveled to other states not exempted from Maine’s quarantine requirement or been in contact with anyone who tested positive for the disease.
At most facilities, new inmates were either put in quarantine for 14 days or until they received a negative COVID-19 test result.
And nearly all of the facilities were requiring employees to wear face masks, with many of them also requiring inmates, visitors and contractors to wear them.
One exception was the Kennebec County Correctional Facility, which did not require screening of staff or masks for anyone when the Maine Department of Corrections inspector visited on Sept. 3. The jail previously had required those practices, the inspector said, but Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason stopped requiring them in June against the recommendation of the jail’s administrator, according to the state inspector. After the visit, the administrator said that the facility would be reinstituting screening and mask-wearing for staff.
The Kennebec County jail was also one of the few facilities that did not quarantine newly arrived inmates for 14 days.
Mason did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment on Friday.
Two other facilities did not require everyone to wear masks: the Somerset County Jail did not require them for inmates, and the Knox County Jail did not require them for inmates or visitors, according to the state report.
The same two facilities did not quarantine new inmates for 14 days, with a Knox County Jail official saying facility administrators were looking into establishing a quarantine area and the Somerset County Jail quarantining new inmates for seven days.
The Department of Corrections visited both facilities on Sept. 4, and both counties said that they have since updated some of their procedures.
Knox County Sheriff Timothy Carroll said that the Rockland jail has now expanded its mask-wearing to the state’s standards. But given the limited size of the facility, he said that it is not possible to quarantine new inmates for a full 14 days.
“Our first set of directives concerning this pandemic have continuously evolved since March as we continue to learn best practices,” he said. “As this goes on, more changes will have to be put in place.”
Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said that his jail in Madison has started requiring inmates to wear masks that it has been providing to them in “the last few weeks.” He said the facility was “in the process of expanding our safety protocols” at the time of the state inspection and noted that it has not had a positive case of COVID-19. He also said that new inmates are quarantined for seven days and only allowed into general population if they do not have any symptoms of the disease.
“As the CDC continues to make recommendations, we will modify/enhance our safety protocols as necessary,” he said.
While most of the state’s 14 jails were taking those key steps to keep COVID-19 out, far fewer had come up with comprehensive plans for how they would respond after an outbreak was already raging. When the inspectors visited in late August and early September, just four had a plan for diverting newly arrested inmates to another facility, and a half-dozen had plans for ramping up testing of all workers and inmates.
One facility that did not have either of those in its pandemic response plans was the Penobscot County Jail, according to the inspector who visited it on Sept. 4. However, the Bangor facility had adopted a number of preventive strategies, including screening of staff and visitors, and requiring mask-wearing by inmates, workers and visitors.
In an email, Morton pointed to the numerous areas where the Bangor jail met or exceeded the state’s recommendations, which also include having somewhere to quarantine inmates who may have been exposed to COVID-19, keeping a list of medically vulnerable inmates, having an adequate supply of protective equipment and conducting adequate cleaning and disinfection of the facility.
Morton said jails must keep up with changing recommendations, and the review took place just a week after the state issued the new requirement that jails put together a coronavirus-specific infection control plan.
“The pandemic has been challenging for our entire country,” Morton said. “We will continue to adapt to new learned best practices.”
At the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, which experienced an outbreak of three inmate cases in mid-July, the state inspector who visited on Sept. 9 noted that signs reminding staff and inmates to wear masks and wash their hands were “literally everywhere” and that compliance with mask-wearing requirements was “excellent.” Still, that jail didn’t have a plan in place to send newly arrested inmates to another facility during an outbreak.
State officials plan to conduct another round of similar inspections of Maine’s county jails in the fall, about 60 days after the original ones.