Covid outbreak strikes Malheur County Jail

The Malheur County Jail weathered a Covid outbreak earlier this month. More than 20 people – inmates and employees – were hit by the infection. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – For nearly a year the Malheur County Jail proved to be an exception to the rule that Covid can infiltrate correctional facilities and create mayhem.

The facility dealt with occasional cases but it escaped the outbreak conditions seen at other, larger correctional facilities across the state.

Earlier this month, though, the jail’s luck ran out.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 7, the jail recorded 21 Covid cases that included employees and inmates. Overall, from the beginning of January through Monday, 25 people – 17 inmates and eight sheriff’s office employees – were infected, said Travis Johnson, Malheur County undersheriff.

No one died or was hospitalized from the outbreak and the worst appears to be over, said Johnson.

“Right now, as far as I am aware, everyone else is on the mend. We don’t have any current cases,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office had “couple of employees who got it” and the jail began to conduct widespread testing in early January.

“We were able to catch a bunch and separate everybody. The bulk of cases came right away and we’ve had a few stragglers since then,” said Johnson.

Jail medical staff in conjunction with Valley Family Health Care conducted the testing, said Johnson.

“After the initial hit, we were able to keep it from spreading,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he isn’t sure how Covid made its way into the jail.

“It could have come from an inmate who brought it in or employees who had it,” said Johnson.

The jail is a busy place, said Johnson, with inmates coming in and out of the facility on a regular basis. That often proves to be a ripe environment for Covid.

“Between inmates and jail staff we are running about 70 people through our facility per week,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office wasn’t surprised.

“We were expecting it all along. It is a jail facility with people in close quarters. We took proper precautions and we felt we were ready for it. So far, I think we’ve handled it pretty well,” said Johnson.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said she was surprised the jail made it this long without a Covid outbreak.

“We’ve seen outbreaks in correctional facilities all over around us. So that is kind amazing they didn’t have an outbreak until now,” said Poe.

Poe said proper precautions by the jail and the sheriff’s office probably kept Covid at bay.

“It is unfortunate it happened but it is also a testament to how careful they have been because that is a high-risk setting,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

 Previous coverage:

Mounting number of local COVID-19 virus cases is worrisome for health officials

Different methods by Oregon and Idaho to fight Covid highlight the challenge of suppressing the virus

Life changing rapidly in Malheur County as closures pile up

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