AUBURN — An outbreak of COVID-19 at Androscoggin County Jail has sidelined half of its transport staff, according to the sheriff.

Two of the three officers there tested positive for the virus shortly after Halloween and have been in quarantine since.

Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

The third officer, who tested positive on Nov. 5, had been sent home earlier to await test results, Sheriff Eric Samson said Wednesday.

This is the first time since the pandemic struck Maine in March that the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, including the jail, has seen a positive case of the novel coronavirus, Samson said. The inmate population continues to test negative for the virus.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention notified Samson on Tuesday that the three positive cases would be classified as an outbreak prompting that agency to institute protocols that include more testing and contact tracing to help identify where the infection came from and who might have been exposed to those officers who tested positive.

Samson said most of the 148 inmates at the jail have been tested, as have staff members who had been exposed to the three transport officers.

The work stations and cruisers of those officers were professionally cleaned after their positive test results, Samson said.

Since having been classified as outbreak, the jail is seeking to lower its inmate population by reaching out to local and state law enforcement agencies to urge them to issue summonses rather than make arrests, if possible, in cases alleging nonviolent crimes. That should help to ensure the jail has adequate quarantine space available should inmates become infected, Samson said.

The outbreak began when a transport officer at the jail who’d had contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 had been out sick, then returned to work. That officer was sent home despite having had no symptoms. A test revealed the officer was positive for the virus. That officer has been on leave since mid-week before Halloween, Samson said.

Two other transport officers came in to work Nov. 1, complaining they didn’t feel well. They both worked in the jail’s control room, which is isolated from the rest of the jail. They were administered COVID-19 rapid tests, which have a higher false negative rate than the CDC’s molecular test that involves swabbing a nasal cavity.

One of the the officers tested positive; one negative. Both were sent home.

The officer who tested positive was tested again, this time by the CDC, which confirmed the initial test.

The officer who tested negative and had no symptoms was tested by CDC a few days later and was diagnosed with COVID-19, Samson said.

Neither officer had been allowed back at work since Nov. 1, Samson said.

If a test comes back positive for the virus, that person is paired with a CDC investigator who will determine when that person is safe to return to work, he said. That period of quarantine could last anywhere from two to six weeks.

“Thankfully, we caught it quick,” Samson said. “We sent people home. We’ve kept them away. And before they were allowed to come back we tested them — in the parking lot,” not in the building.

One of the updated protocols at the jail is to quarantine every new inmate who is booked into the jail, then tested with the more stringent molecular test before put in general population, Samson said.

According to CDC guidelines, an outbreak classification lasts for 28 days. If another positive case is identified during that period, the classification is extended for an additional 28 days, and so on, Samson said.

The loss of the three transport officers hasn’t presented a staffing shortage because the services provided by those officers hasn’t been as pressing lately, since most court appearances by inmates are conducted via videoconference rather than in person in the courtroom due to the pandemic. Also, Maine’s prisons stopped taking sentenced inmates since last month due to an outbreak at the Maine Department of Corrections, Samson said.

The Sheriff’s Office is asking the more than 100 staff members whose spouses or children may have had exposure to someone with COVID-19 or is being tested to stay at home until they or their family member’s test result is negative.

“So we’re doing everything we possibly can not to introduce this into the facility,” he said, “taking every precaution we possibly can.”

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