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Inmates at Rock County jail pray during a jail religious service in a December 2018 Gazette file photo. The Rock County Sheriff’s Office said the jail has tested all its inmates for COVID-19 infection after an outbreak this week has infected at least 29 inmates.

JANESVILLE

In what a Rock County Jail official called an “emergency phase,” most of the 234 jail inmates had been tested by Thursday afternoon for COVID-19 after 29 tested positive as of Wednesday.

Jail officials say they won’t be in a position until at least today to release results of additional testing.

On Thursday afternoon, jail Cmdr. Erik Chellevold said the sheriff’s office still was waiting for results from the State Hygiene Lab for 55 inmate tests performed earlier this week in an outbreak that has infected 29 inmates so far.

As of Thursday afternoon, Chellevold said, the jail had tested most of its 234 inmates, calling the situation an “emergency phase.”

Sheriff Troy Knudson said in a videotaped statement that about 175 inmates had been tested as of early afternoon Thursday and that the remaining inmates likely would be tested before today as more kits became available.

Chellevold said the jail has seen no inmates hospitalized with COVID-19 since testing began Tuesday, but the jail has begun to move inmates with negative test results to different cellblocks to separate them from those who tested positive.

Also being separated are those who are asymptomatic but haven’t yet gotten a test or test results.

“We have to keep evaluating that because there are incubation periods,” Chellevold said.

He said that so far just two inmates with positive tests have been released from the jail. Both were released because they finished their jail sentences this week.

Chellevold said it was “unlikely” the sheriff’s office would have more test results to release until today.

The outbreak is the first in the jail since the pandemic started earlier this year. The first time an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 was in October, and Knudson said that inmate had just arrived at the jail. Staff immediately moved the inmate to a specially pressurized cell.

At the time, Knudson said, the sheriff’s office thought that it had “dodged a bullet” amid a rash of jails around the country struggling with outbreaks among inmates.

News of the jail’s outbreak came after the sheriff’s office tested dozens of inmates Tuesday after two inmates in one cellblock showed symptoms during “routine temperature checks” and two other inmates in another block “self-reported” COVID-19 symptoms, Chellevold said.

He said jail staff has taken extra measures since earlier this year to clean the jail with chemicals and a robotic, ultraviolet-light disinfecting machine.

Since the outbreak became known this week, the jail has begun giving inmates daily temperature checks. That’s an increase from an earlier protocol of one check per inmate every three days, Chellevold said.

Jill Coy, a Racine resident and a health care worker, told The Gazette her boyfriend, Michael Tracy, an inmate at the jail, said he was given a COVID-19 test Thursday morning.

Coy said Tracy is not feeling ill, but he told her he has seen inmates who have had recent, flu-like symptoms closing themselves off from others by staying in their own cells. She believes that some jail staff also have tested positive this week for COVID-19.

Chellevold said the jail is still reviewing what staff it might test, and he said so far he was not aware of any staff being sickened by the outbreak.

Coy said Tracy has told her during recent phone conversations that some inmates believe the outbreak might have started or spread among inmate “trustees” who work in the jail’s food service division.

Coy said Tracy told her five inmates were “pulled out of” one cellblock because they tested positive for COVID-19. Tracy told her he thinks some of those inmates work in the jail’s kitchen.

When asked if any inmates who work in the jail’s kitchen tested positive, Chellevold told The Gazette he couldn’t discuss individual inmates’ health status. But he said the jail has inmate trustees “work all over the building.”

Knudson characterized the first two inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 as “workers” at the jail.

He said that since the outbreak started, jail staff has taken over all the jobs typically handled by inmate trustees, including laundry and kitchen work.

“We fully realize now that COVID has entered the jail, we have difficult times ahead of us,” Knudson said.

He said officers could end up working in a more “difficult environment” than in the past, including longer hours and more intensive duties.

As of Thursday, the sheriff’s office had determined which areas of the jail saw illnesses first in the outbreak, but Chellevold said it might not be possible to fully trace the outbreak to its start.

Coy told The Gazette some inmates are worried infected trustees might have had a chance to spread the virus in the jail via jobs handling food for days before they felt symptoms.

Coy also said that for the last four months, Tracy has told her he has seen jail officers moving around without face coverings.

And during visits to Tracy, Coy said she has observed public visitation spaces at the jail that smell of body odor. She said some of the spaces have refuse left behind from earlier visits, such as empty drink containers.

Coy said she has also seen visitors who take off their masks as soon as they enter public visiting areas.

And she said Tracy told her that this week some correctional officers who had been working in the cellblock with active inmate infections have since transferred to Tracy’s cellblock.

On Thursday, Knudson said jail officers all wear N95 paper masks, a recent change that came after a county supervisor suggested jailers use the paper masks instead of cloth masks.

Correctional officers always rotate among cellblocks on a routine schedule, Chellevold said.

Under protocols put in place since the start of the pandemic, any jail officer who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate at home for 14 day, he and Knudson said.

Since March 19, the sheriff’s office has seen 36 employees with positive COVID-19 cases, according to sheriff’s office records.

Knudson said in a video statement on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page the sheriff’s office has had a “more difficult” autumn with staff COVID-19 illnesses and possible exposure to the virus compared to last spring.

Chellevold couldn’t immediately say how many jail staff have had COVID-19, but he said the jail’s strategy now is to assign jailers who have already had COVID-19 and recovered to parts of the jail where infected inmates are being quarantined.

Chellevold indicated the jail has seen active infections of some staff within the last month, but he said the jail has not seen an increase in inmates self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms.

He said that in the days leading up to the outbreak, he was aware of no infected staff that would have had contact with inmates.

Coy said on Thursday jail staff cleaned the floors of Tracy’s block with a fresh swipe of bleach.

“He said that now it’s like just another day, any other day,” Coy said, except that rumors have circulated all day of more people testing positive.

During the outbreak, Coy said, Tracy has been asking jail staff for rubber gloves to protect against the virus, but as of Thursday no one would give him any.

She said Tracy has told her he and other inmates are scared because “it’s hard to tell if somebody’s sick or not because everybody reacts differently.”

She believes some in the public might not have much sympathy for jail inmates, but she said she hopes the jail will address some of the problems she has seen and Tracy has told her about.

“I can understand why some people would say, ‘These are just jail inmates, so who cares?’” Coy said. “But this could be a death sentence for some of them.”

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