The coronavirus outbreak at the York County Jail has spread dramatically and now includes 54 cases, including 35 inmates.

More than 80 tests are still being analyzed.

The number of confirmed cases at the jail jumped by 36 on Friday, when Sheriff William King received some results from a second round of universal testing. King had reported 18 cases earlier in the week.

All 54 cases have now been linked to a broader outbreak sparked by a wedding reception 235 miles away at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket. The wedding outbreak has directly or indirectly infected 123 people and caused one death, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine cases at Maple Crest Rehabilitation Center in Madison also have been connected to the outbreak.

The combined cases linked to the wedding are the state’s largest outbreak thus far in the pandemic.

State health officials have said a York County Jail employee attended the Aug. 7 wedding. The first positive test connected to the jail was reported on Aug. 19.

The cases at the jail include 16 corrections officers, 35 inmates, two employees from the government building and one Department of Health and Human Services staffer who is assigned to the jail. King expected to receive 35 more test results at some point Friday and about 50 test results on Saturday or Sunday. 

King said the jail did not require guards and inmates to wear masks before this outbreak.

The sheriff said the jail issued masks to both guards and inmates this spring, and newly arrived inmates also receive them. But the jail previously required guards to wear those masks only when working with an inmate who is suspected of having the virus.

Otherwise, King said the decision to wear a mask was up to the individual. He did not know how many people were wearing their masks prior to the outbreak, but said it was not “a regular occurrence.”

Asked whether that policy could have contributed to the quick spread of the virus inside the jail, King said he didn’t think so.

“Some people may feel that, but do I feel that?” King said. “Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t think it did, no. But it’s a fair question.”

Inmates and guards have been required to wear masks since the first positive test result came back last week. Public health officials have said that face coverings can significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order in April that required masks in all public settings when physical distancing is not possible. The governor has strengthened that mandate over time; in July, she issued another order that requires large businesses and other establishments in Maine’s most populous cities to enforce the rule. That order includes York County.

King said he wasn’t sure whether the jail fell under that mandate.

“I don’t know if that pertained to a correctional facility,” King said. “They have been issued masks, but I think prior to this outbreak, we were doing our best to social distance.”

Emails to the spokespeople for the Maine CDC and the governor’s officer were not returned late Friday afternoon. It was not clear Friday if other Maine jails are requiring masks.

All inmates who have tested positive for the virus had been housed in the jail’s medical unit. But the number of positive cases is now high enough that jail staff turned a regular unit into a temporary medical unit.

Only two of the 35 inmates who have COVID-19 were exhibiting symptoms Friday, the sheriff said. The total number of people incarcerated at the jail is 116, King said, so the confirmed cases so far represent 30 percent of the population.

“It’s astounding to me,” King said of the number of asymptomatic inmates.

Defense attorney Amy Fairfield said the outbreak is a significant risk to her incarcerated clients, many of whom have health issues. She said the attorneys in her office have been fighting to reduce bail for their vulnerable clients who are awaiting trial, but they have not always been successful.

“It’s terrifying, quite frankly,” Fairfield said. “I have a lot of clients who are plagued with health related issues.”

She said she was concerned by the sheriff’s comments about masks.

“That is such a simple thing to do,” she said. “Yeah, it’s a nuisance. I’ve tried two full days (in court) in a mask this week, and it was hard. But it’s such a small price to pay in the short term.”

The outbreak has left the jail struggling to maintain staffing because 16 of its 40 corrections officers now have the virus. The county was already short-staffed because of vacancies; the budget calls for 75 corrections officers.

“It’s raising havoc with our staffing issues,” King said.

King has spoken with the union that represents corrections officers about allowing them to work extra shifts. There is currently a 72-hour weekly maximum, but that may be relaxed on a case-by-case basis, he said. Beds in the jail’s wellness center have been made available for corrections officers to use to sleep between shifts instead of driving home.

Jail staff is currently working to get phone access to inmates in the new medical unit who are currently on lockdown. King said he wants to reassure the families of inmates that his staff is doing everything it can do to control the outbreak and care for inmates.

“I’m sure they’re nervous for their loved one who is incarcerated,” King said. “We’re doing what we can to make it as comfortable as possible (for inmates) and get them some phone access so they can call their loved ones to reassure them.”

The officers are represented by the National Corrections Employee Association. Bill Doyle, the association’s regional director, said the union requested hazard pay of $3 per hour in light of the outbreak. The starting wage for an officer is $16.80 per hour. The sheriff’s office denied that request.

“The staff are furious right now,” Doyle said. “They are all feeling overworked, undervalued. This is a staffing crisis that’s been a long time coming because of the failure to plan by the department.”

Jails and prisons have been the sites of deadly outbreaks in other states, but Maine had so far reported only a small number of cases in correctional facilities. Four inmates tested positive at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in May. One teenager incarcerated at the Long Creek Youth Development Center tested positive in June. And three inmates tested positive in the Cumberland County Jail in Portland in July. The York County Jail had previously reported one case in an inmate.

The Maine CDC is continuing its investigation of the Millinocket wedding outbreak and continues to closely monitor the inn that hosted the reception.

On Tuesday, Maine health officials suspended the health license of the Big Moose Inn after a return visit revealed the inn still wasn’t complying with state guidelines for operating safely. That license was reinstated on Friday after inn owner Laurie Cormier corrected public health hazards.

The inn was originally cited for allowing an indoors gathering of more than 50 people at the reception, which was attended by about 65 people. There also was minimal mask-wearing, the Maine CDC said.

In the citation dated Wednesday, a health inspector who visited that day found that Big Moose Inn employees were not wearing face coverings, tables were not at least 6 feet apart and there was “no social distancing during this extreme public health emergency.”

“There are deadly consequences associated with uncontrolled gatherings,” Health and Human Services Commission Jeanne Lambrew said Thursday.

On Friday, health officials reported 22 new cases of COVID-19 but no additional deaths among individuals with the coronavirus. The new cases reported Friday at the jail will be included in Saturday’s numbers, according to the CDC. To date, Maine CDC has reported 4,436 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the virus began appearing in Maine in mid-March.

The number of individuals in Maine who have died after contracting COVID-19 held steady at 132 on Friday.

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