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 officials said Thursday that they’re launching a “comprehensive inquiry” into the COVID-19 outbreak at the county jail that has so far infected at least 75 people and that came after jail management reportedly didn’t follow some key infection control practices.

In a virtual news conference, County Manager Gregory Zinser said the county was “engaging a third party” to immediately investigate what factors contributed to the outbreak, which is Maine’s largest to date in a correctional facility. The county is now working with its attorney to identify that third party and hopes to find someone within two days.

“If in this case the county’s required practices were not followed, we will find out how and why that occurred and deal with it,” Zinser said. “Once we have all the facts, we will take whatever action is appropriate, necessitated and warranted.”

The county announced the inquiry a day after the Bangor Daily News reported that the jail didn’t take the temperatures or perform additional symptom screening of its employees as they entered the jail, according to Commissioner Randall Liberty of the Maine Department of Corrections. The jail also didn’t require staff or inmates to wear face coverings, which are seen as critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings such as correctional facilities and nursing homes where people live and work in close quarters.

While the county has had a policy requiring masking of inmates and staff, Zinser said that he didn’t know if it had another policy requiring that jail staff be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before Aug. 19, when it first detected the jail outbreak. It did put such a policy in place at that point.

And despite the ongoing outbreak, the jail did not come up with an alternative arrangement for housing newly arrested inmates until this week. It’s now working to divert those inmates to the Cumberland County Jail, Zinser said. Liberty told the BDN Wednesday that “it’s critically important” that a jail with an outbreak stop taking in new inmates until the outbreak has stopped.

While Zinser didn’t know the total number of new inmates admitted to the jail since Aug. 19, he said there were at least three brought in this past weekend, with the outbreak in full force, after “situations warranting an arrest.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention 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. York County Sheriff William King didn’t respond to questions about the outbreak from the BDN this week and didn’t participate in Thursday’s news conference.

The outbreak has so far spread to 46 inmates, or almost half of the 106 who were reportedly in the jail as of mid-August. It has also infected 22 employees in the jail building and at least seven of their household members. (The state earlier announced 10 additional cases among family members, but those cases have since turned out to be negative after testing results came back.) The outbreak has caused particular concern among state health officials because the eight newest cases among inmates were detected in an area of the jail where there previously hadn’t been cases, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Thursday.

Zinser said he is aware of two infected employees who are currently away from work and experiencing flu-like symptoms. He said the jail is monitoring their conditions. While the jail is now starting to bring infected staff back after they’ve taken 10 days of administrative leave, Zinser said the jail is working with employees on a case-by-case basis to keep paying them if they need to stay home, such as to take care of sick family members.

He also said some inmates who have symptoms associated with COVID-19 — such as scratchy throats and diarrhea — are quarantining in single cells. He’s not aware of any that have become so sick that they need to enter the jail’s medical unit, but added that the jail is prepared to “automatically” bring any of them to a local hospital if they need more advanced care.

Meanwhile, the inmates who may have been exposed to other infected inmates are quarantining in single and double cells in a separate part of the jail, according to Zinser.

The Maine Department of Corrections is stepping up its oversight of county jails in response to the York County outbreak. On Friday, the department issued new rules requiring that the state’s 15 county jails write new policies focused on the prevention of COVID-19 and submit those to state health officials for annual review.

The corrections department’s compliance manager will visit 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.