• Last modified 806 days ago (July 16, 2020)


COVID-exposed inmates untested as officials debate their roles

Staff writer

Despite a positive test from within the jail complex and horror stories nationwide about COVID-19 spreading in jails, inmates at Marion County Jail have not been tested.

As best as can be determined, both the sheriff’s department and the health department are waiting for each other to act.

A jailer was reported to have tested positive for the virus July 10, although confirmation of the positive test came not from the health administrator, but from undersheriff David Huntley. The jail was sanitized, but inmates and staff have not been tested.

In other areas, COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities have created infection hotspots that caused widespread inmate infection. Outcry against health and correctional officials has even resulted in lawsuits.

Huntley said Thursday that officials would watch to see whether anyone else developed symptoms. The reason, he said, is that county health administrator Diedre Serene did not direct jailer Jim Philpott to have everyone tested.

Huntley said he thought the decision whether to test everybody would be made by the health department.

But health department director Diedre Serene said it was up to the sheriff’s department to decide whether to test everyone.

Commissioner Randy Dallke told Serene at Monday’s county commission meeting that he was concerned whether a cluster might develop.

“It’s probably not a matter of ‘if,’ ” Serene said. “That will occur in one of our facilities. It’s a matter of when.”

Commissioner Dianne Novak asked how the county could mandate that somebody be tested.

Serene said only that her department could order quarantine of anyone in contact with the disease for 10 days after the first day of symptoms.

“I’m just hearing we have an actual case in our jail system,” Dallke said. “I’m wondering what it is when it’s in the system of our jail.”

He said he expected department heads to give commissioners “a heads-up to give us the facts.”

“When we have had someone in the jail, I’d like to have known,” he said.

Serene has typically released only numbers of new cases. She said said she would not release further information to the public or commissioners but that the sheriff’s office or county clerk could.

“If the county clerk, who is the public information officer, wants to report it, she can do that,” Serene said.

Commissioner David Crofoot said he didn’t want to depend on the clerk to keep commissioners informed on such things.

In pointed words about Serene at the end of the meeting, Dallke said he thought department heads should have to come to the commissioners to get their paychecks.

Discussing the virus, Novak said she didn’t like a state requirement that people wear masks in public and didn’t like contract tracing of people who had been exposed to the virus.

She sees both as an invasion of people’s liberties.

Serene said tracing contacts of people was a directive from the state, not an initiative of the local health department.

“That’s the way we protect the public health,” Serene said.

Novak said people were not wearing masks properly because they move them up and down. She asked what scientific evidence showed that wearing masks did any good when they were moved up and down.

Novak also asked how many county residents have died from the virus.

Serene answered one.

“So the rest is kind of like the flu,” Novak said. “Most recover.”

Novak also complained about decisions regarding which workers were essential and which are not.

“I just don’t understand where we get off deciding who’s needed and who’s not,” she said.

Serene said that decision was made by the state.

Dallke said a county employee affected by the virus could potentially be off work for 30 days.

“Where do we stand on paying them?” he said.

Chairman Jonah Gehring suggested making a change in the employee handbook, but county clerk Tina Spencer said a grant was expected to cover illness expenses.

Last modified July 16, 2020