Deputies raise concerns about COVID-19 procedures at county jail
Deputies working at the Washington County Jail are raising safety concerns after a process for monitoring new inmates for COVID-19 symptoms and keeping them apart from the general population for 14 days broke down on multiple recent occasions.
Additionally, deputies are frustrated with limited details they receive about their possible contact with COVID-19 positive inmates and other deputies who have had close contact with COVID-19 positive inmates, according to an attorney who represents jail deputies through the Washington County Police Officers Association.
"I can tell you that the majority of (Washington County Police Officers Association) represented employees who work in and around the jail do not believe that their health and safety is being taken seriously by the county," said Mark Makler, an attorney who represents jail deputies, in an Oct. 8 email sent to county officials.
Jail staff identified four separate incidents between Oct. 21 and 27 in which an inmate who arrived at the jail fewer than 14 days earlier was moved out of their cell into a general population area, the Washington County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.
The incidents violated a procedure the jail put in place months ago as a coronavirus safety measure.
The procedure involved housing new inmates who aren't COVID-19 positive and haven't had contact with a confirmed or presumptive case apart from the general population. The general population was made up of inmates who had cleared a 14-day monitoring period without having symptoms.
The inmates at issue were moved to the general population two to six days prior to their 14-day monitoring period ending, the statement said.
"It was an oversight that we have corrected," the Sheriff's Office said.
Six inmates and three jail staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, according to the Sheriff's Office.
"All are believed to have been exposed in the community, not in the jail," the Sheriff's Office said.
Since deputies' concerns were raised by the police union, jail leadership consulted with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services and implemented new procedures for maintaining the 14-day monitoring period.
"Each of the staff members who allowed (inmates) out of monitoring early has been counseled on the monitoring period's importance," the Sheriff's Office said.
A new reporting system allows jail staff to place the inmates in a housing cohort made up of other inmates who have arrived on the same day. Cohorts come out of their cells to have meals, go to court, shower and use the phone only with other inmates in the same cohort.
"We have implemented many additional steps, such as placing furniture within the common areas that have the proper distance between them for social distancing and limiting the number of people sitting at a table at one time," the Sheriff's Office said.
Makler said he's happy the Sheriff's Office is making changes to ensure a sound procedure of monitoring new inmates, but he added that he's disappointed it only occurred after deputies requested involvement by a union attorney.
"It's unfortunate they have to be kind of prodded and pushed into doing it," Makler said. "The issues of safety and health that were being raised, (deputies) felt like they weren't getting responded to."
He also said he would have to wait and see how well staff adhere to the new procedure before being satisfied by the changes.
"You can write it out, but the problem is implementation," Makler said.
Deputies also have been frustrated by jail leadership not telling all deputies which specific inmates and staff have contracted COVID-19 or been in close contact with confirmed cases, Makler said.
He has advocated for the jail leadership to release such information, arguing that jail deputies should be exempt from normal privacy laws because of the imperative to prevent an outbreak at the jail, his Oct. 8 email to county staff shows.
Jail staff receive a generic email if someone in the jail has tested positive for COVID-19. Inmates who test positive or are presumptive cases are lodged in the medical unit, the Sheriff's Office said.
"(Staff) are provided more specific information at shift briefing," including health information about specific inmates such as a positive COVID-19 test, the Sheriff's Office said.
Privacy laws prohibit employers from sharing any specific medical information of employees.
Currently, employers also are not required to notify employees of workplace infections, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
The agency is proposing creating a requirement for employers to notify employees within 24 hours of being made aware of an employee being in the workplace while positive for COVID-19, according to draft temporary rules the agency created as of Oct. 23.
Jail leadership does, in fact, notify jail employees if a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 came into the jail by sending a generic email without identifying the individual to all staff, the Sheriff's Office said.
Any inmate who tests positive for COVID-19 isolates for at least 10 days since symptoms began, they have been fever-free for 24 hours and their symptoms are improving, the Sheriff's Office said. If a COVID-19 positive inmate has no symptoms, isolation lasts for at least 10 days from the positive test.
On Oct. 7, a Washington County jail inmate who had been released from the jail reported that they tested positive for COVID-19 after being released, according to an email sent by Lt. Vance Stimler. The inmate, who was at the jail for less than 24 hours, reported being symptomatic while in custody, the email shows.
Jail staff reviewed video footage from the jail and determined that three staff members had been within six feet of the inmate for at least 15 minutes. The staff members were put on leave and directed to quarantine, according to guidance by health officials.
After being made aware of the positive case, jail deputies wanted to be informed about whether they had contact with the staff members who were directed to quarantine, Makler said. Health officials do not currently recommend directing contacts of people who have had contact with a positive case to quarantine, the Sheriff's Office said.
Makler said deputies also were concerned that they could still contract COVID-19 even if they were exposed to a positive case for less than the 15-minute threshold, which is the current guidance from health officials.
"Guidelines are just that — guidelines; and we all know that CV19 is 'novel' and we are learning new information about it every day," Makler wrote to county officials.
Makler, who also represents police officers from other law enforcement agencies around the county, says officers are constantly stressed about what they see as insufficient measures by leadership to prevent coronavirus transmission.
"Every day they're like, 'Am I going to get exposed today, am I going to get exposed today,'" he said.
The Sheriff's Office officials say they consult with county health officials on all COVID-19-related matters. Additionally, they have based prevention procedures on guidance from the Oregon State Sheriff's Association, which has advised jails around the state.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details about what information jail staff receive about COVID-19 cases at the jail.
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