Brian Maddox said he called out sick from his job as a correctional officer right before the York County Jail detected its first case of COVID-19 in an outbreak that has now spread to more than 70 people. He tested positive and is still recovering more than two weeks later.

“If your employers aren’t taking it seriously, you need to tell them to take it seriously,” said Maddox, 62. “Seriously, it’s an ass kicker, and it can take your life.”

Joshua Walker said he tested positive for the virus a week after the jail learned about that first case. Exhausted and feverish, he slept for hours at a time in his cell in a quarantined unit. He thinks his symptoms are finally fading, but he described the disease like a roller coaster that could peak again.

“God willing, nobody dies of this in here,” said Walker, 45.

The outbreak is the largest by far in a correctional facility in Maine, and it has forced new scrutiny of the 15 county jails.

The York County Sheriff told the Portland Press Herald last week that masks were not required most of the time for inmates and guards, a policy that goes against the recommendations of public health officials. The virus has now spread to 46 inmates, 19 employees and seven people who live in households with jail workers. Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has said “face-covering wearing may not have been what we wanted it to be.”

Now, the Maine Department of Corrections is visiting the jails to review their coronavirus safeguards and for the first time is requiring those protocols to be in writing. The state prisons have required masks inside state prisons since April and advised county jails to do the same.

The Press Herald also contacted the jails to survey them about their response to the pandemic. At least six sheriffs responded to say they have required guards and inmates to wear masks most of time since at least early summer, many earlier. The other sheriffs did not respond or could not be reached this week.

Maine jails have reported cases of COVID-19 before now. In Cumberland County, three inmates tested positive this summer. And York County reported that an inmate tested positive during the booking process around the same time. A correctional officer in Aroostook County got the coronavirus this spring. But it did not spread in those instances like in this outbreak.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve caught them, and we’ve been able to lock things down and take care of business,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said. “I’m not saying that luck isn’t at some point going to run out. I keep telling my staff that in a New York second, we could be just like York County.”

Nearly half of the inmates and officers at the York County Jail have contracted the virus.

Walker has been incarcerated at the Alfred jail throughout the pandemic.

He said correctional officers did wear masks and take other precautions during the booking process for new inmates. But he said most did not wear them in other areas of the jail.

“It was only a matter of time before another officer brought it in, and it went wild when it did,” he said.

Walker also said he did not get a mask for himself until the outbreak hit. When other inmates asked for masks, he said he heard the officers deny them.

“They called it contraband,” he said.

Walker is waiting to be transferred to a state prison to serve his sentence for theft and burglary. He said the environment in the jail is stressful right now, and the experience has made him feel the jail did not care about him.

“They were playing with my life,” Walker said. “My life is worth something, regardless of whether I’m in jail or prison.”

Maddox, who is the president of the local union, has been quarantined at his Biddeford home for more than two weeks.

He said he felt that the jail was taking the virus seriously in some ways. York County was the first to test every inmate upon arrival. The officers wore masks during booking. The jail quarantined those new inmates away from the others.

But the state has said the virus came into the jail through a correctional employee who attended a wedding and reception in the Millinocket area last month that is now linked to more than 140 cases across the state, including three deaths.

Maddox admitted that the officers did not always wear masks in other parts of the jail. He said he was “flabbergasted” when the virus spread so rapidly among his co-workers. He advocated for wearing face coverings – “If you’re wearing a mask, you’re protecting other people,” he said – but he still wasn’t sure whether that requirement would have prevented this outbreak.

“Yes, I think that probably would have helped,” he said. “But would it have stopped it? I don’t think so.”

Kelly Gardner, 51, started to get worried when she hadn’t heard from her son in days. She lives in Massachusetts, and he is in custody at the York County Jail while he awaits trial. When he finally called her, she learned he had tested positive for COVID-19. She said he tried to read a newspaper article about the outbreak over the phone, but he needed to catch his breath at times.

Gardner said her son has asthma, and she is terrified that he won’t have access to the medical care he needs. She spent this week calling public officials in Maine to raise the alarm about the outbreak. She said she is considering legal action.

“I just don’t think they should get away with this,” Gardner said. “The jail is going to be held accountable.”

Her son could not be reached for an interview request.

York County officials announced Thursday that they will conduct an inquiry into whether the jail was following the right protocols before the outbreak. That includes wearing masks inside the facility and screening employees for symptoms before their shifts.

County Manager Greg Zinser has said those protocols have been in place since the outbreak. He also said Friday that no inmates currently need treatment in the jail’s medical unit or at any local hospitals.

“We’re very thankful at this point, but also recognize while I’m going to make this statement to you, that it could turn very quickly because of the nature of this disease,” Zinser said.

Other sheriffs said they have been taking similar precautions for months. Although their policies were not always consistent, all of the sheriffs who responded to the newspaper’s survey took a different approach than the York County Jail and have been requiring masks most of the time. Some jails put their mask mandates in place in the spring, others as late as June.

In five counties – Aroostook, Cumberland, Franklin, Penobscot and Piscataquis – masks are required for guards and inmates. Typically, they said inmates can take their masks off in their cells, and guards can take them off if they are alone at their stations and away from other people.

In Androscoggin County, Sheriff Eric Samson said inmates are encouraged but not required to wear their masks. He said the jail doesn’t have any way to force the inmates to don their masks, but most of them do it anyway. Guards there are required to wear them, however. In Penobscot County, Sheriff Troy Morton said inmates are required to wear their masks, but the jail is struggling with compliance.

Besides York County, only Cumberland County is testing every person upon intake. Others require tests for inmates and guards who have symptoms. In Aroostook County, Sheriff Shawn Gillen said he braced himself for an outbreak when an officer tested positive in April. That person didn’t have any contact with inmates, he said, but the entire shift got tested just in case. The results came back negative, but the experience was rattling.

“It certainly made it real for us in administration,” Gillen said.

The sheriffs also reported that they check temperatures for employees before their shifts, with Franklin County implementing that step this week.

“You can never let your guard down at this point,” Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols said. “We’ve got to remain hyper vigilant about what’s going on.”

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