York County officials are launching an inquiry into whether the jail followed protocol for wearing masks before an outbreak of COVID-19 infected more than 70 people, including nearly half of the inmates and correctional officers.

County Manager Greg Zinser announced that investigation Thursday on a Zoom media call. Sheriff Bill King told the Portland Press Herald last week that neither guards nor inmates were required to wear masks before the outbreak. King was not on the call Thursday and has not answered questions about the outbreak this week.

“Was it a regular occurrence prior to this outbreak?” King said in the interview last week. “No.”

Public health officials have repeatedly said that face coverings can significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Zinser said Thursday that the county’s protocol should have required guards and inmates to wear masks inside the jail. A third-party investigator, who has not been named, will be tasked with finding out whether the jail was actually following protocols.

“That is the million dollar question,” Zinser said. “We know it is.”

“I’m not going to speculate on who we’re going to be holding accountable at this time or assigning blame,” he added later. “I think collectively we all understand the severity of the situation. We’re going to be looking into this.”

The outbreak at the jail is now one of the state’s largest in a single facility.

Officials have said a correctional employee attended a wedding last month in Millinocket that is now linked to 144 cases across the state, including two smaller outbreaks, at a long-term care facility in Madison and a church in Sanford.

Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said Thursday that the agency confirmed eight new cases among inmates in just 24 hours.

“What’s concerning to the Maine CDC is that these eight new cases among inmates are in a different part of the jail, an area of the jail where there had not previously been cases,” Shah said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit this spring in hopes of forcing the release of medically vulnerable inmates in Maine prisons during the pandemic, but a federal judge dismissed that case last month. The organization also is closely monitoring this outbreak.

“As more information becomes public, it has become clear that the York County Jail’s pandemic response did not even begin to meet the CDC guidelines for congregate facilities, or the state’s own public health requirements,” Legal Director Emma Bond said. “For months, mask wearing for staff and those who are incarcerated was discretionary, and staff did not undergo symptom screenings. It is clear that the York County sheriff – an elected official who holds an office of public trust – disregarded the safety of people in his custody, his staff and their families, and the wider community.”

Zinser said that the number of employees and inmates who had tested positive as of Thursday morning was 65. Those cases include 46 inmates, 18 employees and one contracted vendor. The jail is currently conducting a third round of universal testing.

The sheriff reported Wednesday that three additional employees had tested positive. The reason for the discrepancy was not clear Thursday.

Those numbers account for nearly half of the people who are incarcerated or employed in the York County Jail. The jail had 106 people in custody as of Friday. The county budgets for 76 correctional officers, but because of a high number of vacancies, roughly 40 of those positions are actually filled right now.

The Maine CDC also reported Wednesday that the outbreak included 17 people who live in households with jail employees. Those cases had brought the total number to more than 80 people. However, Shah said on Thursday that 10 of those people had now tested negative for the virus, bringing the case count to 72.

Zinser said Thursday that at least two officers have mild symptoms similar to the flu. He did not know how many inmates are experiencing symptoms, but he said none has been transferred to the medical unit in the jail for heightened care.

Outside of Maine, some of the country’s largest COVID-19 clusters this summer were in prisons and jails. Research also shows that positive cases in correctional facilities often spill into the surrounding community.

Maine had so far been spared those outbreaks, but attorneys and advocates still pushed for those facilities to release as many inmates as possible to mitigate risk. Judges agreed to reduce bail for many pretrial inmates, and county jails considered which sentenced inmates could go home early. County jails held more than 1,600 people in January. By May, that number dipped below 1,000, a 40 percent reduction.

But data from the Maine Department of Corrections shows that trend has reversed this summer. Nearly 1,400 people were in custody in county jails last week. In light of this outbreak, York County District Attorney Kathy Slattery said Thursday that the number of motions to amend bail in pending cases increased dramatically last week and this week. She did not know how many motions had been filed or granted, however.

Slattery did not endorse more widespread releases, saying each case needs to be considered on its own merits. For people who will be released on a lesser bail amount in light of the outbreak, she said her office is asking the judge to require a 14-day quarantine.

“We always have to be concerned about public safety,” Slattery said. “We also want to be concerned about individuals who are now put in the position of being exposed to COVID.”

Defense attorney Tina Heather Nadeau said the jail should close if it cannot guarantee the safety of people who are incarcerated or working there.

“Like many of my colleagues, I am very concerned that this outbreak is going to infect the remaining 50 percent of incarcerated people in the York County Jail, as well as the rest of the staff and their families,” she wrote in an email. “By not taking basic measures, the sheriff gambled with the health, lives, and safety of his staff and the people in his care and custody, as well as the community at large. This is the terrible and unsurprising result.”

“York County officials are undertaking an investigation, but it seems clear based on public statements made by the sheriff himself that he did not mandate mask use or do other basic things that would have helped to prevent such an outbreak,” she added.

Zinser said Thursday that officials are working on an agreement to send people who are newly arrested in York County to the jail in neighboring Cumberland County. Inside the York County Jail, inmates who have tested positive have been separated from those who have not.

Employees who have tested positive are quarantined at home. The county manager said repeatedly that the jail has enough corrections officers on duty to keep the jail staffed and safe. Those officers are working overtime, he said, and some are sleeping in a nearby county building between shifts.

“We appreciate the sacrifices that they’re making to staff the facility,” Zinser said. “We do not need at this point to transfer inmates to another facility.”

Bill Doyle, regional director of the National Correctional Employees Union, which represents the officers in York County, said the county has repeatedly denied or not responded to requests for hazard pay, even when the union has offered to relax a 72-hour cap on overtime and make other concessions in exchange.

Doyle recounted a conversation with one sick officer who said he would not be able to break up an altercation if needed in his current condition. That person is not back on the job yet, Doyle said, but he is concerned that officers could be called back while they are still experiencing symptoms.

“It’s a very dangerous environment for everybody down there, for correctional officers and inmates,” he said.

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