Thurston County Jail Inmate Tests Positive for COVID-19

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A Thurston County jail inmate has tested positive for COVID-19, the Sheriff's Office confirmed Tuesday.

The diagnosis makes Thurston's the latest of many correctional facilities that have confirmed cases and manifests long-standing concerns of advocates and inmates.

Calling in the 'testing strike team'

The Sheriff's Office was notified the inmate tested positive Monday, Lt. Ray Brady told The Olympian. Administration and jail medical staff then implemented "quarantine protocols," he said, though he declined to provide an up-to-date version of that document to The Olympian.

Schelli Slaughter, director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, told The Olympian the inmate who tested positive is no longer at the jail, saying she believes they are now staying at the county's isolation and quarantine facility.

The department is investigating the case and deployed a testing strike team to test all inmates and staff at the facility Tuesday, Slaughter said.

The jail is now considered to be under quarantine, Slaughter said, meaning inmates will stay in whatever conditions they were in and staff who has been in close contact or exposed will quarantine at home.

The jail setup

Since early in the pandemic, advocates across the state have voiced concern for prison and jail populations, who live in tight quarters and risk fast spread of the coronavirus once it arrives.

In late March, The Olympian reported that inmates, in at least one of the dormitories, were raising concerns and local criminal justice officials were prioritizing lowering the number of people in custody. The jail reported a 20% decrease in population within one month.

Among other measures, the jail also canceled volunteer programs and set aside cells to observe recently booked inmates for possible symptoms.

The majority of the jail's inmates are minimum- and medium-security and live in open-concept dorms that can hold up to 68 people. It's an environment where it's difficult, if not impossible, to follow public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as staying 6 feet away from others.

Sheriff's Lt. Brady said Tuesday the office would not disclose if the COVID-positive inmate was confined to a cell or if they had been staying in one of the dorms, citing privacy concerns of inmates and their families.

Inmates speak out

However, multiple sources, including inmates Jeremy Allen and Dennis Sleeper, have told The Olympian that the person diagnosed had been living in one of the four dormitories -- referred to as "G Dorm."

In separate phone calls with The Olympian Tuesday, Allen and Sleeper gave parallel accounts of events in the dorm surrounding their fellow inmate's positive test.

Both say that before the inmate tested positive, inmates hadn't been following public health-recommended guidelines, at least not in G Dorm. Inmates and officers didn't wear masks and inmates didn't stay 6 feet apart.

Ashley Yale, who's in a relationship with an inmate in another dorm, told The Olympian her boyfriend also reported inmates hadn't been told to wear masks or keep 6 feet apart before Monday.

"I feel like they're all just going to get it," she said, especially because people can be carriers of the disease without showing symptoms.

Sleeper said he once got a mask when there was a COVID-19 scare in another dorm where he had been housed, but that was temporary.

"It was a playground here," Allen said.

Procedures changed Monday, Allen and Sleeper said, after the inmate tested positive.

They say the inmate had been at a hospital for reasons related to a surgery and was tested there. However, County Public Health Director Schelli Slaughter did not confirm this claim when asked about it in a Tuesday phone interview.

Inmates have now been given one disposable mask each to use indefinitely when they're not in their bunks, and the jail put up signage encouraging public health measures, the inmates say. And instead of eating in a common room, they now eat at their bunks using disposable dishware.

"This all was preventable," Sleeper said.

Olympia attorney Christopher Taylor was appointed to represent Sleeper and told The Olympian he's spoken to his client several times since the case was confirmed.

According to Taylor, Sleeper reported that there have been at least two other inmates in G Dorm with "flu-like symptoms." Sleeper has a court hearing at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, but won't be able to appear now, Taylor said.

"I think it was inevitable COVID was going to come to the jail," Taylor told The Olympian, later elaborating that it's just impossible to prevent with the way jails are set up.

"Once it gets there, it's going to burn like wildfire."

The state Department of Corrections has reported 424 inmates with COVID-19 at eight of its locations so far during the pandemic. However, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center has had the worst outbreak by far, with 233 cases and two deaths.

DOC has reported a total of 145 staff members with COVID-19, and one death among them.

What happens next

Director Slaughter said they hope to have test results within 48 hours, and the plan moving forward is to test the population again in seven days.

She and local Health Officer Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek met with the Sheriff's Office to talk through the current situation and are working with them to determine a course of action, Slaughter said, depending on what the testing reveals.

The situation is not being termed an "outbreak" because one confirmed case doesn't meet the state Department of Health's definition for an outbreak in a non-health care setting, a county Public Health spokesperson told The Olympian.

But, if another case is identified, it could be considered an outbreak under the DOH definition. The county is currently managing congregate care outbreaks in two adult family homes, an adult group home, and two long-term care facilities.

When asked about the role Public Health has played in the jail since the pandemic began, Slaughter said the department has met with the Sheriff's Office and other county departments and offices "many times to share and discuss the most recent guidance" regarding COVID-19. Staff don't inspect the facility to ensure the jail is following precautions, she said.

"Typically, when Public Health is investigating any kind of potential outbreak, then we will work with the business or organization -- in this case the Thurston County Jail -- on best practices to prevent and control the spread of COVID," Slaughter said.

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