Cases of COVID at the Howard County jail exploded last week, from one case being reported to hundreds.
Last Friday, Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher reported 236 inmates had tested positive for the virus. The first case, in an inmate worker, was confirmed in the jail Nov. 12. The next day, 23 inmates were tested for the virus, and 19 tested positive. That afternoon, Asher said he contacted the Indiana State Department of Health and requested its strike team come in and test all inmates, which was done on Monday, Nov. 16.
443 inmates in total were tested, and five refused to be tested. As of Friday, 215 males and 21 females had tested positive for COVID-19, and results still were pending for 85 inmates.
Asher was unsure how the outbreak started.
“That’s the million-dollar question of how it got here,” Asher said. “I mean, I can’t answer that question because it is hard to say. I just know we had the first inmate we had test positive was an inmate worker of ours, and I really would love to say how that happened. I would love to find out where we can track that back to, but I cannot come up with that.”
In addition to the inmates testing positive, 23 jail employees have tested positive for the virus since March. Of those, 15 have returned to work, and eight were currently quarantining. No inmates or employees have been hospitalized as a result of contracting the virus.
According to Asher, inmates and employees are required to wear masks in the facility, with the exception of in their cells. Since the pandemic began, the jail has taken been quarantining each new arrival to the jail for 14 days for medical observation before being allowed to join the population.
Currently, inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 are being kept separate from those who have not tested positive. Inmates with COVID are being kept in cells with other inmates who have tested positive, Asher said, as space doesn’t allow COVID-positive inmates to be kept in cells to themselves due to the already-high jail population.
“I wish we could do it individually by themselves,” Asher said. “Our population is high enough we cannot do that. Now what we have done is our staff has pushed the positives into an area and then the negatives into another area. But like I said, we can’t have each individual person in their individual cell. We put all the positives in that area and the negatives over here to try to get that separation.”
Asher said measures were taken early on in the pandemic to prevent an outbreak in the facility. On March 17, all activities were suspended at the jail, including visitation, and volunteers were prevented from entering the facility. Inmates and employees were screened for signs of the virus, and jail staff requested the public defender’s office and other attorneys to limit their visits at the jail and asked judges to conduct as many court hearings as possible through the jail’s video system.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) was provided to employees and inmates, and the jail began using one of its day units as a 14-day quarantine center.
“Obviously as over time grew our population started growing as well. We had to open one of our indoor rec areas to help quarantine, that with some doctors’ orders we reduced that to 10 days, still trying to quarantine, still trying to keep them safe. We asked our judges to help with some high-risk inmates and then also with sentenced inmates to try to separate and try to get those released, which they did during that time,” Asher said.
On July 6, the jail re-opened to allow on-site visits, but Asher said precautionary measures remained in place, such as taking the temperatures of new arrestees and continuing video conferencing.
The jail has purchased a disinfecting machine that helps clean large areas, such as some of the holding tanks and padded cells, and two disinfecting backpack sprayers were purchased as well “that almost constantly move around the facility.”
The time inmates quarantine has been bumped back up to 14 days, and visitation has been suspended again.