March 11, 2010

Inmates isolated as swine flu cases rise at county jail


— By

Staff Writer

The outbreak of the H1N1 virus at the Cumberland County Jail has spread to as many as seven inmates, one of whom was released Friday.

The jail has opened a housing unit, or pod, to serve as an infirmary for any inmates who develop symptoms of the so-called swine flu. Six inmates are there so far, and health workers are checking each inmate's temperature twice a day to identify any new cases as quickly as possible.

''We think we contained it to one area of the jail,'' said Sheriff Mark Dion.

The biggest challenge could be on the horizon, if an inmate exhibiting flu-like symptoms is scheduled to be released. That could prompt Dion and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to petition a judge to keep the person in custody or release them to a hospital so they do not spread the virus to the general population.

The state and county have done that once before, when a homeless man with tuberculosis was due to be released. The man was eventually transferred to a secure treatment facility in Massachusetts.

The virus was first confirmed at the jail Friday, in a 22-year-old federal detainee who had been brought there from Suffolk County Jail in Boston on May 29. Officials do not know where that man contracted it.

The Cumberland County Jail has a contract with the federal government to house prisoners at a rate of $104 per day, revenue that helps offset other costs at the jail.

Another federal detainee, a 41-year-old man, also tested positive for the virus Friday, but he was ultimately released. Earlier in the day, the federal government had determined that the man should not be held pending a deportation hearing, and he was released on bond.

Dion said he could have moved to keep the man in custody, but medical staff determined that he was at low risk of spreading the disease. Officials worked with a church and a volunteer lawyer to have the man transferred to housing in Massachusetts.

At the jail now, inmates who have symptoms have been issued respiratory masks, as have corrections officers who work in the pod where the virus first appeared.

Will Russell, president of the union representing corrections officers, said they obviously need to work in a safe environment.

''Up to now, the steps the administration have taken meet that. The officers have been equipped with masks, and Tamiflu has been made available at no cost to the officers,'' he said.

Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine, also has been made available to inmates in the pod.

Officers with young children at home or with underlying medical conditions are not being asked to work in the pod where the infection started. Maj. Francine Breton said many officers who do not have young children have volunteered to work with that group of inmates.

A state epidemiologist met with jail administrators and supervisors Monday to educate them about the virus, its incubation period, how it is spread and the symptoms.

The virus has turned up at other correctional facilities nationally, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued interim guidance for administrators last month. The CDC report recognized that the confined quarters make the spread of the disease more likely.

Outside the facility, Portland officials are keeping a close eye on what becomes of the jail outbreak. Upon release, many inmates head for the even tighter quarters offered at the city homeless shelter.

Douglas Gardner, director of the city's Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency has developed procedures to isolate clients who show flu-like symptoms until they are no longer contagious.

The strategies have been shared with other shelters in Cumberland and York counties, he said.

There is nobody right now who requires that protocol, he said.

''We did have an emergency shelter consumer present (symptoms), and we instituted the protocols we have had in place, isolated the individual as best we could, and everything went as planned, and the individual is no longer staying with us,'' Gardner said.

The state has had 29 confirmed cases of H1N1 so far, with 16 of them in Cumberland County, according to the Maine CDC.

Dion said declaring the jail pod virus-free might happen only after 14 days in which no flu symptoms are spotted.

It takes two to seven days from exposure until symptoms appear.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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