One more inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak at the Penobscot County Jail that has now infected 14 at the Bangor facility, a Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson said Tuesday.
So far, three inmates and 11 employees have tested positive in Maine’s latest outbreak at a correctional facility. Universal virus testing of inmates was expected to begin Tuesday, according to Robert Long, the Maine CDC spokesperson.
Morton on Tuesday defended the jail’s handling of the outbreak in response to about a half dozen people who criticized jail policies during a county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday morning.
Much of that criticism emanated from a recent letter from inmates at the Bangor jail who raised concerns about personal hygiene and cleanliness at the facility. Some said they had not been given medication — such as anti-addiction medication — for which they have a prescription. The Maine Beacon news website first reported on the letter earlier this month.
Morton announced on Feb. 23 that six staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, with the first case, in a corrections officer, having been detected the previous weekend. The jail required close contacts of infected staff members to stay home from work, and told local police departments to bring new arrestees to other county jails.
Some on Tuesday called for corrections officers to be tested for COVID-19 regularly regardless of whether they show symptoms. The jail had been “negligent” in not testing the staff, said Diane Dicranian, a member of the Maine Council of Churches who said she had worked as a corrections officer in three different Maine jails.
Larry Dansinger of the group No Penobscot County Jail Expansion told the commissioners that jail staff members who refuse vaccinations should not be allowed to work as long as inmates are not vaccinated.
Morton denied allegations from the inmates’ letter, and blamed five recent resignations from the Penobscot County Jail Board of Visitors on criticism from those critical of jail policy. The board of visitors, whose members the sheriff appoints, is the jail’s outside oversight board.
The jail has long taken precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Morton said, including symptom checks for staff reporting to work and mask-wearing requirements. He said the timing of the outbreak — nearly a year after COVID-19 was first detected in Maine — showed that jail policies had worked.
Inmates “are not even allowed out of the police car until they’re screened by our medical personnel,” Morton said.
Reports from Department of Corrections inspections of the jail in September and November confirmed that the Bangor jail has instituted face covering requirements and symptom checks. Staff members are required to report any symptoms to their supervisors, or contact with anyone who has COVID-19, according to a summary of the state’s November inspection.
Morton said inmates were not following requirements to wear masks at all times, especially when in their cell blocks. The sheriff said that while corrections officers do their best to enforce mask use, they would not use physical force to do so.
All employees who wanted to receive a COVID-19 vaccination have now received their second shots, Morton said Tuesday. The jail has not required that employees be vaccinated, and Morton did not say what percentage of staff members have been inoculated.
“We cannot force them,” Morton said. “That’s a personal choice.”
Only three Penobscot County Jail inmates currently are eligible to be vaccinated, as they are 60 or older, the sheriff said. Some inmates who had received the Moderna vaccine before they were incarcerated have been able to receive their second shots, he said.
The jail has been speaking with Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor about vaccinating inmates, Morton said.
As for regular testing of employees, Morton said staff members who show symptoms of the virus are tested, but the rapid tests the jail uses are not meant for those not showing symptoms, Morton said.