First COVID-19 infections found among Chelan County jail inmates

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WENATCHEE — The first Chelan County jail inmates to test positive for COVID-19 while in custody were discovered Monday — almost two years after the pandemic began.

The Chelan County Regional Justice Center has defied the odds since the pandemic emergency was declared in March 2020, with officials there reporting no in-custody cases for 22 months. Meanwhile, state prisons and local jails throughout Washington — and the U.S. — struggled with frequent outbreaks among staff and incarcerated people.

But the 267-bed regional jail could only defy the odds for so long, and two ailing inmates tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 10, said Director Chris Sharp. A third inmate tested positive on Thursday, Jan. 13.

“We ran a good game,” Sharp told NCWLIFE on Friday. “We did really well. I don’t know this for sure, but I believe we were probably the only jail in the state that had not had a positive case or multiple cases in their facility up to this point.”

Chelan County Regional Justice Center director Chris Sharp

Sharp said after the first two diagnoses Monday, corrections officers moved the COVID-positive inmates into a single cell separate from others. Both were given N95 masks and a supply of Gatorade, and are receiving medical checks, including temperature and blood oxygen readings, two to three times a day.

On Thursday the third inmate, who was scheduled for transfer to Yakima that day, showed a positive result for COVID when managers noted symptoms and tested him as a precaution. He too was remanded to quarantine holding at the Wenatchee facility.

All three patients at first experienced symptoms such as headaches, fever and cough, Sharp said. “I’m happy to say all three of them right now are already feeling better. Their temperatures are gone, their aches and pains are departing.”

New inmates arriving at the jail are quarantined for several days before joining the general jail population. The three COVID patients are long-term inmates who’ve been held there for an extended period; one has been confined there awaiting trial since August, another since October.

Sharp says there’s little way to know whether they caught the virus from jail staff, or during a court appearance, or from fellow inmates who arrived and then left the jail without showing symptoms.

“They weren’t out in the public, they weren’t going to the grocery store, they weren’t Home Depot or Lowe’s, so honestly the biggest threat (of infection) to the incarcerated individual is our staff. So the guidance from my chiefs and from me in the director’s position was, ‘If you don’t feel good, stay home.'”

Ten jail staff members were out with COVID-19 diagnoses as of Friday, Sharp said.

The inmates’ positive tests led Sharp to reinstitute the jail’s COVID-19 contingency plan, which had been in effect early in the pandemic but was allowed to lapse as cases in the community declined. Among other steps, the plan involves restricting the kinds of crimes for which the jail would accept a new inmate, and so lowering the overall number of people incarcerated there.

Domestic violence and DUI charges require a mandatory booking, Sharp said, as do Class A and Class B violent felonies. But the jail reserves the right to accept a booking for lesser offenses where the suspect may pose a public risk.

“The other side of the coin is we only have so many isolation beds,” Sharp said, “and we’re still mandated to isolate these people” to guard against COVID-19 as they’re admitted to the jail. Right now the facility can manage about 28 isolated bookings at one time.

In-person visits for detainees have been reduced to one day a week, with guests and inmates separated by security windows, and the jail provides a video-visiting option. Most of the jail’s detainees are people held pre-trial who have not been convicted of a crime, but are not able to pay the money bond that would allow them to walk free before coming to court.

Sean Larsen, chief deputy of operations, said the Chelan County jail has learned from jail managers who’ve dealt with outbreaks in other facilities across the state.

“We’ve tried to put things in place over the last several months to address some of the issues that they’ve had. Overall, our operation is status quo, short of our classification department making some housing adjustments for the positive individuals, and the individuals that were exposed to those that tested positive, we need to make some concessions for them, and make sure that you don’t move any new people in or out.”

Corrections managers have offered COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates since they became available through the Chelan-Douglas Health District; about 58 detainees so far have accepted the shots. The jail will conduct more COVID testing among its general population at the beginning of the week, Larsen said, to see if there’s been additional spread.

“In our business, similar to the hospital, the show must go on,” Larsen said. “We have a job to do, we have a responsibility to the public, and we mean to fulfill that.”