York County Jail employees “fell short of the mark” in following COVID-19 prevention measures such as mask-wearing and health screenings in the lead-up to a COVID-19 outbreak at the Alfred jail last summer, according to an independent probe into that outbreak released Friday.
While the York County manager issued a written policy in May requiring that county employees wear face coverings except for when they were in private offices, Sheriff William King exempted corrections officers from wearing face coverings because doing so wasn’t “feasible due to inmate climate concerns,” according to the probe.
A number of jail employees also didn’t see COVID-19 as a “legitimate threat” to public health and may not have been cautious about trying to avoid exposure while outside of work, the probe found.
The outbreak infected 48 inmates and 43 employees, as well as 16 members of employees’ households, after it started Aug. 19. The corrections officer who brought the virus into the facility after attending a now-infamous wedding on Millinocket Lake that led to 180 infections across much of the state worked several shifts while exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. The officer didn’t have to fill out a health evaluation or go through symptom checks.
After that officer brought the virus into the facility, staff members’ failure to wear masks, socially distance and conduct health evaluations allowed the outbreak to quickly spread, the report found. Those protocols were not enforced until after the outbreak had begun.
“The totality of the evidence demonstrates that many widely suggested prevention measures were not employed,” the report said.
The York County commissioners approved the independent inquiry into the outbreak on Sept. 4, 2020. The day before, the Bangor Daily News reported that the jail had not screened employees for COVID-19 symptoms when they reported for work in the lead-up to the outbreak. The Portland Press Herald had previously reported that jail employees didn’t wear masks.
Attorney Leah Rachin of Portland-based law firm Drummond Woodsum was asked to determine pre-outbreak COVID-19 policies in the jail and how the virus made it into the building.
Rachin was not able to conclude whether the virus would have entered the facility had staff implemented more COVID-19 restrictions, noting that several employees did not believe COVID-19 represented a “legitimate threat” to public health and may not have followed protocols while off-duty.
That included the corrections officer who brought the virus in, who worked 10 shifts over five days while symptomatic, exposing inmates and staff.
On April 3, 2020 — a few weeks into the pandemic — York County Jail Superintendent Lt. Col. Mike Vitiello sent a new housing protocol to supervisors requiring that inmates wear masks when not in their cell, among other preventative measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, masks were not required for inmates in large holding cells, which often contained multiple inmates at once.
New inmates who entered the prison were tested for COVID-19, but would be housed in intake until their tests came back negative. Inmates were not masked in intake cells, and new inmates who were awaiting COVID-19 test results sometimes came in contact with other maskless inmates.
That policy was later changed to have new prisoners housed in individual cells as they awaited test results, though it was done because of limited intake cell space and a desire to separate male and female inmates rather than due to COVID-19 protocols, the report found.
Staff mask-wearing was also not enforced pre-outbreak: while staff were issued Envo masks in May, they were told not to wear them but to keep them in their lockers in case they were needed.
A memo from County Manager Greg Zinser to employees that went into effect on May 21 said that face masks were required for employees unless they were in a private office by themselves.
However, an email from King to sheriff’s office department heads that same day specifically exempted corrections officers from face covering requirements because they worked in a “closed system.”
The jail didn’t enforce mask use for staff until shortly after they were informed of the outbreak on Aug. 20, the report found.
In addition, daily self-screening evaluations, including temperature checks, were not performed until Aug. 24.
The outbreak caused the Maine Department of Corrections to step up oversight of the state’s 15 county jails. In August, it issued new rules requiring that they write a COVID-19 prevention policies to be reviewed annually by state health officials. The department also dispatched staff to inspect all of Maine’s county jails and assess how well they were following COVID-19 protocols. A handful of other county jails were not requiring mask-wearing, they found.
No immediate action is expected in response to the report in York County, as county commissioners and the sheriff’s office are still analyzing it, the York County commissioners said Friday afternoon.