Hampden County sheriff: 79 inmates, 20 staffers test positive for COVID

  • An unidentified inmate at the Hampden County jail in Ludlow gets tested for COVID-19. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2020 1:39:26 PM

LUDLOW — A round of COVID-19 testing has revealed an outbreak at the county jail, where 79 incarcerated men and 20 staffers have tested positive.

The spike in coronavirus infections at the Hampden County Correctional Center comes as cases continue to rise across the state. Sheriff Nick Cocchi said in a press release Tuesday that he had ordered a “precautionary round of testing” for all staff and inmates. Incarcerated people are at increased risk of infection because of the crowded conditions in prisons and jails, as are staffers at those facilities.

“Positive staff members are home quarantining and all positive cases among those in our custody are showing mild or no symptoms, doing well overall, and in medical quarantine with around-the-clock medical care,” the press release states.

The 79 infected inmates are in the men’s “main institution,” and represent nearly 10% of that facility’s current population of 793. Neither the women’s facility nor addiction center had any cases among inmates or staff, according to sheriff’s department spokesman Stephen O’Neil.

The sheriff’s office declined to make Cocchi available for an interview Tuesday. In his press release, Cocchi said that with infection rates up across the community, the department wanted to conduct thorough testing. O’Neil said this is only the second time that inmates and staff have all been tested since the pandemic began. The first round of testing took place in May after eight inmates and four staffers tested positive.

The 20 staffers who tested positive are at home quarantining, and the 79 inmates who tested positive have been placed together in a “quarantine pod,” O’Neil said. However, he also said that at the moment the jail has no plans to retest any of the inmates, even though some who tested negative may have been in close contact with someone who had the virus.

“You could test daily and that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything,” he said, noting that the jail has individual rooms where it can isolate those with the virus. “We’ll evaluate testing going forward, certainly. But I can’t tell you at this moment we have testing planned in five days, 10 days or whatever.”

Inmates who arrive at the jail are kept in their cells for up to four days to be monitored for symptoms, O’Neil said, after which they are placed on a quarantine unit for the remainder of a two-week period.

The sheriff’s office said it is screening every staff member before each shift “to ensure everyone is healthy and symptom-free.” It also said staff has ramped up disinfecting procedures, and that inmates and staff have been wearing masks since March.

COVID-19 can spread asymptomatically, however. And as an airborne virus, disinfecting can only accomplish so much, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending improved ventilation systems and air purifiers to reduce the concentration of the virus in the air.

In Hampshire County, the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction said Nov. 20 that it has had no cases of COVID-19 since May. Sheriff Patrick Cahillane said in a statement at the time that his office and local health authorities were testing and conducting contract tracing of staff after some employees came in contact with an inmate who contracted the virus at the hospital.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s vaccine advisory group was set to meet Tuesday evening to determine who is first in line for a vaccine in the state, which is expected to receive enough vaccines this month to inoculate some 300,000 residents.

The CDC was set to vote Tuesday on recommendations for a phased-in inoculation, with direct care health workers as the top priority. States have until Friday to submit their own distribution plans to the federal government.

It was unclear on Tuesday afternoon where prisoners and correctional facility staff would fit on that priority list. A recent peer-reviewed study in the journal Health Affairs found that the short-term cycling of inmates through local jails after arrests and during pretrial procedures led to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the communities surrounding those jails, with communities of color at particular risk.

Cocchi, the Hampden County sheriff, has been a critic of a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in April that allowed for the release of nonviolent inmates from custody while they awaited trial. At the time, he said the court did not take into account the COVID-19 precautions jails had taken to keep the coronavirus out of their facilities, and that some inmates were released without housing accommodations or substance abuse treatment plans.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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