County jails hit by COVID outbreaks

  • An inmate at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow receives a vaccine shot against COVID-19 in a recent undated photo. HAMPDEN COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

  • Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2022 5:45:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Jails throughout the Pioneer Valley are coping with outbreaks of COVID-19 among their inmate and detainee populations, as well as staff, but so far during the unprecedented spike in cases nationwide due to the omicron variant, no local sheriff’s departments have reported serious illness, hospitalization or death in their facilities.

Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan said Wednesday that 28 inmates at the county jail in Greenfield are under medical quarantine — five of whom are unvaccinated — and 12 staff members are out of work after testing positive for COVID-19. Asymptomatic staff members can return after five days, in accordance with the latest CDC guidance.

“It took two years for COVID to find us, but I think that (the omicron variant) was too much for us to handle,” Donelan said. “The best chance is that staff brought it in. That’s what we’ve always feared.”

Donelan said the jail is “a fully vaccinated facility” in terms of staff, while more than 80% of the inmate population is vaccinated. But with the omicron variant’s high level of transmissibility, the current outbreak had “a sense of inevitability.”

Anyone who is symptomatic is showing “very mild flu- or cold-like symptoms,” Donelan said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,075 cases of COVID-19 in Franklin County in the seven days between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, 20 new hospital admissions and a 68.4% vaccination rate in people who are eligible based on age, which is 5 and older.

New cases in Northampton jail

The Hampshire County Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday that seven pretrial detainees at the county jail in Northampton had tested positive for COVID-19 since Sunday and five were showing “minor symptoms.”

Among the seven cases, four detainees are unvaccinated, two are vaccinated but have not received booster shots, and one is vaccinated with a booster shot.

“All are being quarantined and closely monitored by our medical staff,” sheriff’s spokesman Thomas Mitchell said. “It is important to note that no one in our sentenced population has tested positive.”

According to the CDC, in the seven-day period from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, there were 2,548 cases of COVID-19 in Hampshire County with 15 new hospital admissions and 11 deaths. The vaccination rate among those 5 and older is 66.7%.

“After containing our initial outbreak in April of 2020, Sheriff Cahillane’s administration kept the virus out of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction for 575 days, until our second outbreak on Nov. 27th, 2021,” Mitchell said.

Between Nov. 27 and Dec. 30, the jail identified 16 cases of COVID-19 among pretrial detainees. All recovered with no medical complications and returned to the general population.

The sheriff’s department received a grant from the state Department of Public Health for a supply of rapid tests, Mitchell said, and “implemented new testing protocols designed to detect cases as soon as possible and thereby limit the scope of any outbreak.” Since the new year, the department has administered 240 rapid tests for staff, inmates and detainees.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, county jails are not subject to Gov. Charlie Baker’s vaccine mandate for employees of state correctional institutions. The Hampshire County jail’s staff vaccination rate is around 75%.

“Sheriff Cahillane’s administration continues to work with staff, residents, and state public health officials to achieve the goal of 100% vaccination for everyone in his care,” Mitchell said.

Outbreak ongoing in Hampden County

The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, which runs facilities including the jail in Ludlow, said Wednesday that 54 of its employees are out of work with positive tests and 74 inmates and detainees are in medical quarantine after testing positive. Of those 74, 71 are at the Ludlow jail and three are at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Facility in Chicopee.

Staff who are asymptomatic are allowed to return to work after five days.

On Jan. 4, the department announced that 85 of its employees and 29 people incarcerated at the Hampden County Jail had tested positive. The staff vaccination rate is around 74% and the jail holds regular vaccination clinics for staff and the inmate population, according to department spokesman Robert Rizzuto.

No one has been hospitalized in the outbreak and only a few showed symptoms, which were described as mild.

The CDC reported 14,001 cases of COVID-19 in Hampden County between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, 151 new hospital admissions, 33 deaths and a vaccination rate of 65.9% among those 5 and older. Hampden County’s population is about six times that of Franklin County and about triple that of Hampshire County.

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