The York County Jail in Alfred. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Before COVID-19 swept through the York County Jail in what has now become the largest outbreak of the disease in a Maine correctional facility, its management didn’t require inmates or staff to wear protective face coverings.

Staff also weren’t regularly required to have their temperatures taken when they entered the jail, and now that the disease has run rampant, it’s not clear that the Alfred facility has anywhere else to send newly arrested inmates.

Those are among the factors that state corrections officials now say may have contributed to an outbreak that has infected at least 85 people connected to the lock-up, including 46 inmates, 22 staff and 17 of their household members, according to the latest state and county figures.

That’s despite the fact that the Maine Department of Corrections and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been educating county sheriffs on proper public health protocols throughout the pandemic. There have been a few other small clusters of COVID-19 at Maine correctional facilities, but none that have produced more than a handful of cases.

“We’ve had such good success at keeping COVID out of the Maine Department of Corrections facilities and the jails,” said Commissioner Randall Liberty. “This was really the first outbreak that we’ve had in corrections in the state of Maine.”

After learning of the poor infection control practices at facilities including the York County Jail, Liberty said, he became “concerned” and saw a need for the state to intervene to ensure that other county facilities weren’t making the same mistakes.

Now, the Maine Department of Corrections has increased its oversight of those practices at the state’s 15 county jails, requiring them to write new policies focused on the prevention of COVID-19 and submit those to state health officials for annual review.

Liberty pointed to a few shortcomings in York County’s approach to preventing a COVID-19 outbreak, including the fact that guards and inmates were not required to wear masks to prevent the spread of droplets from the nose and mouth, as the Portland Press Herald reported last week.

“The CDC guidance was clear for correctional settings…that all staff should be masked up, as should all offenders,” Liberty said. “It’s critically important, because in a correctional setting, as in a nursing facility, it is challenging to maintain proper social distancing because of the co-location of the offenders and the staff.”

In addition, Liberty said he’s learned that jail staff were not required to have their temperatures taken or undergo additional screening every time they entered the facility, as Maine health officials recommend for all congregate living settings, given the risk that employees can become infected out in the community and bring the virus back to their workplace.

The Maine CDC now thinks the York County Jail outbreak originated after a worker returned from an Aug. 7 wedding in the Katahdin region that’s become the source of the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, Liberty said he’s concerned that another county facility has not agreed to take in the inmates who would normally go to York County Jail after being arrested, despite the ongoing outbreak. The jail normally takes in six to 10 inmates a week, but it is not clear how many have been brought there since the outbreak was detected.

A sign by the road marks the York County Sheriff’s office and York County Jail in Alfred. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

York County Sheriff William King did not respond to several requests for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions for this article. The jail has not submitted a new inmate count to the state corrections department since Aug. 16, when it had 106 inmates, or a third of its capacity.

Now, while Maine jails were previously required to have written policies detailing how they manage infectious diseases, a new state rule issued late last week goes quite a bit further by specifically requiring that those policies include measures to prevent and contain outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Those policies must now undergo annual review by state health and corrections officials. In addition, the compliance manager for the Department of Corrections will travel to all 15 jails over the next week to assess their use of masking, medical screenings and other practices meant to prevent and manage outbreaks of COVID-19, Liberty said.

However, the Maine Department of Corrections is limited in what it can require of county jails, since they are managed by independently elected sheriffs and county commissioners.

Until COVID-19 began to spread around the York County Jail last month, Maine — unlike much of the rest of the country — had managed to avoid large outbreaks in correctional facilities.

In the state’s prison system, a May outbreak at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham was limited to four inmates, and Maine’s youth prison recorded a single positive case in late June in a girl who was being released. None of the other inmates at the youth facility, nor any staff members, tested positive.

Similarly, county jails hadn’t seen many cases until the outbreak in York County. The Cumberland County Jail recorded an outbreak of three cases in July, and the York County Jail saw a positive test in a newly arrested inmate in early July, the Portland Press Herald reported.

The outbreak at the York County Jail has caused stress and frustration for both inmates and staff. Joe Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said his organization is trying to assist inmates and their families, but it has been able to receive very little information about the outbreak.

“For the most part, I’ve heard that the facility is on lockdown,” Jackson said.

William Doyle, regional director for the National Correctional Employees Union which represents the workers in nine Maine jails, said he’s “very disappointed” in the York County Jail’s management. He noted that the outbreak has exacerbated a long-running shortage of workers at the jail.

The York County Jail in Alfred. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

In addition, he has heard from union members that some staff who have been infected are now being called back from administrative leave after 10 days of symptoms, which is the length of time the U.S. CDC has said the virus is contagious.

While Doyle didn’t question that public health guidance, he said, “We have real concerns about returning folks who are still sick, and families who are sick, back to work.”

“After three to four months of this pandemic, you would think a correctional institution would have response plans in place, and that’s not the case,” Doyle added. “It’s inexcusable, and shame on those that weren’t ready.”