The state’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday that the Cumberland County Jail has officially had a COVID-19 outbreak after two more inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of positive tests at the state’s largest pre-trial lockup to three.

However, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said later Tuesday that a retest of one of the two inmates had come back negative, and he was awaiting results of the other inmate’s retest, generating confusion about whether there are any current COVID-19 cases at the jail. The two inmates were were not exhibiting symptoms. The first inmate to test positive has since been released from the jail.

Meanwhile, the two inmates and their cellmates have been isolated from the rest of the jail population, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is responding to an official outbreak based on the initial tests indicating three or more cases that are connected.

“Maine CDC has opened an outbreak investigation at Cumberland County Jail,” CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email. “The investigation allows us to make resources available to the facility and to do further work, including widespread testing, to mitigate risk of potential exposure and virus transmission to others.

“A follow-up negative test result does not overturn an initial positive result,” Long said. “If an individual has a positive result, that individual will be counted as a case regardless of subsequent test results.”

The Cumberland County Jail was the first jail in the state to have a confirmed coronavirus case. The infected inmate was arrested on June 27 by Westbrook police on criminal threatening and disorderly conduct charges, but was sent to the jail’s medical unit after staff learned that the person might have been exposed to the virus.

Following that case, Joyce ordered all inmates to be tested, but the process has been slow. The jail is waiting on about 35 more inmate test results to come back out of more than 300, he said. The tests on the roughly 340 inmates and about 150 staff are being performed in batches of about 35 to 40 at a time, he said.

Joyce said he has been coordinating the response with Armor Correctional Health Services, the private contractor that provides all medical services at the jail. The contractor, and not Joyce, has been in touch with the state CDC.

“I don’t micromanage what they do,” Joyce said of the outside contractor. “I’ve been in contact not only with (Armor) health services administration, but the doctor, who has really drilled down on this. I leave it up to them, the experts, of what I need to get done. Sometimes things don’t go as quickly as I want them to be, and I have to live with that because I hire those folks out.”

Joyce said the medical advisers recommended retesting the two inmates, both of whom have been described as having no symptoms.

“We had one individual come back positive, who had been in the facility for over 14 days (before the test), so they’d gone through their (14-day intake) quarantine and was asymptomatic,” Joyce said. “So we tested that individual again, and he came back negative.”

Joyce said he has no control over when the second person’s retest results will come in, and he’s still formulating a testing policy his staff can use to handle coronavirus cases at the jail.

“This is like trying to fly a plane and building it at the same time,” Joyce said. “Will there be a policy going forward? Likely. But right now there is no policy.”

The next batch of tests will be performed on all jail staff, he said, starting in the coming days.

Joyce said he has also taken delivery of a rapid testing machine produced by Abbott Laboratories, which soon will be used to test every inmate who is brought to the jail. Joyce said he requested the Abbott machine through the medical services contractor in April, but it’s been a slow process implementing the new equipment. If all goes to plan, new arrivals at the jail will be tested during intake starting Friday, he said.

One of the inmates who was moved to isolation is Steven S. Walker, 34, who was booked at the jail in May. In a phone interview from his isolation cell, Walker said he was confused about why he was pulled out of the general population on Sunday. Then a staffer told him he was exposed to coronavirus, and although his test came back negative, he would have to be isolated anyway.

“They gave us no soap, no phone calls, no showers, no medical attention, nothing,” said Walker, who first regained access to a phone around noon on Tuesday. “But we’re right next door to each other.

“My test was negative. I shouldn’t be housed with someone who’s test came back positive, and I think everybody should have a chance to call their family and should be given soap, shower, new clothes. I haven’t even changed my clothes since I came down here.”

Walker said the idea of contracting a deadly virus while locked up was frightening.

“It’s scary, I feel like I was face to face with COVID, in the flesh,” Walker said. “And I can’t do nothing. I can’t protect myself, I can’t move.”

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