Yakima County jail DOC

FILE — The 14-day quarantine cell unit Thursday, May 7, 2020, at the Yakima County Department of Corrections in Yakima, Wash. 

Yakima County jail officials say the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility has passed its peak and is under control.

At its height, the outbreak infected 130 inmates — about 31% of the inmate population — and 34 corrections officers.

As of Thursday, only seven inmates and 12 corrections officers were infected and the others had recovered, said Jeremy Welch, chief of security operations.

However, two corrections officers remained hospitalized with the virus, Welch said Thursday.

The jail’s average inmate population right now is 420 with about 100 corrections officers.

“I believe we are definitely on the downside of the outbreak,” Welch said. “Our process and what we are doing is showing that we have been able to successfully bring those numbers down. I think it shows that we did take it very seriously.”

The jail’s first coronavirus case was identified in May. The infected inmate had been transferred from the Sunnyside jail, where an outbreak had occurred.

Then on June 18, the county reported that 19 inmates on the jail’s second floor had tested positive for the virus and were being quarantined. The number of infected inmates continued to climb.

Aside from the infected inmate from Sunnyside, jail officials said it’s believed the outbreak was caused by infected staff.

At that time, jail officials attempted to mandate staff and inmates mask up, but county Prosecutor Joe Brusic said the jail couldn’t legally require it. Eventually it became mandatory, just ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order requiring people to wear masks in public. That, along with other measures, appear to have ended the virus’ spread at the facility.

“I hope that we are on the end of the outbreak situation,” Welch said. “We are working with the Yakima Health District. We will be reviewing with them every week and hopefully at some point say we are done with the outbreak.”

Locking down the spread

Welch credits the health district and the county’s Office of Emergency Management for helping implement a response plan.

Corrections officers are required to wear masks. Inmates also must mask up when leaving their cells.

Every inmate has been tested and new inmates are now tested as part of booking procedures, Welch said.

Corrections officers are tested weekly whether they have symptoms or previously tested negative, said Melissa Sixberry, director of disease control for the health district.

“This is to identify new cases in a timely manner and get them isolated,” she said.

Inmates who feel ill are tested. When an inmate is presumed positive, the entire unit is tested and quarantined until test results come back, Welch said.

Then, only those who test positive are moved into a unit devoted to housing only infected inmates, he said.

“We don’t want to be moving people around because we don’t know if they’re positive or not,” he said. “Once we get the test results back, then we can move people around to limit exposure.”

Supplies

The jail is receiving supplies, including masks, gloves, face shields and other personal protective equipment, from the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

“They’ve been great help in offering their services and keeping us stocked up on the (personal protective) equipment,” Welch said.

Supplies are provided on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

“If they have an emergency need for whatever, they can give us a call and we can shoot that to them or they can pick it up,” said Horace Ward, operations manager for OEM.

Since the outbreak, OEM has provided the jail with 5,700 various types of masks, 650 face shields, 4,400 gloves, 100 aprons and sleeves, 22 hand-surface sanitizers and Lysol sprays.

“I’ve been extremely proud of our resource support team because they have been pushing out personal protection equipment to all of our partners across the county,” Ward said.

Countywide, his office has distributed more than 4.5 million pieces of PPE to government agencies, businesses and the general public since April.

“We’ve been trying to ensure that everybody who needs stuff is getting stuff,” he said.

A new landscape

The county jail is hamstrung by the pandemic.

Efforts to slow the spread of the virus has led to inmates being conditionally released across the state, including in Yakima County, where the jail is reliant on revenue from contracts to house prisoners from other communities.

The jail’s daily inmate population declined from averaging 900 to what it is now — about 420.

Jail revenue dropped by more than $750,000 a month when other communities stopped sending their inmates here.

Revenue losses resulted in the layoffs, 25 corrections officers and five support staff. And 15 vacant corrections positions were left unfilled. Previously the jail had 145 corrections positions.

The loss of corrections officers has made it difficult to operate under the pandemic. Safely moving inmates can be labor-intense, Welch said.

Last week five laid-off officers were called in to help the jail manage the outbreak, he said.

“On a day-to-day basis, it can be difficult,” Welch said.

But fewer inmates has freed up room to quarantine the infected.

“Obviously we wouldn’t be able to do that if we still had the 900 inmates we had back in February, March,” he said. “Numerous times we have emptied out a unit to do this.”

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