BREAKING: 16 Inmates at King County Jail Test Positive for COVID-19

by Carolyn Bick

King County Jail’s downtown Seattle location has confirmed 16 new cases of COVID-19, according to a press release sent to reporters on the afternoon of Dec. 7.

The press release said that an inmate at the jail “reported flu-like symptoms” on Dec. 6. This person had been at the jail for more than a month, and initially tested negative, when they were first jailed, the press release said. 

This means that this person caught the novel coronavirus and developed COVID-19, while they were in jail.

The press release said that everyone jailed in the same unit — all adults — was tested as soon as the case was reported. Of the 69 people jailed in the same unit, 15 others tested positive for COVID-19. The press release said that these 15 people have been “transferred to medical isolation at the Maleng Regional Justice Center [MRJC] in Kent. The other 54 have been placed in quarantine housing at [King County Correctional Facility].”

“This is the first time we have confirmed cases of COVID-19 from coronavirus exposures that occurred within our jails,” the press release said. “Public Health contact tracers are working to identify any inmates, staff or visitors who may have had close contact with the recently identified cases among our in-custody population. Before testing positive, this inmate had been in a wing that houses inmate-workers – those who help in jail operations.”

In an email to the Emerald on Dec. 8, King County Jail Public Information Officer Noah Haglund said that those who tested positive were between the ages of 20 and 54. This falls in line with the state Department of Health’s demographics chart that shows this age range currently has the highest case rate throughout the state.

The press release also said that staff have decontaminated the wing of the jail where the sick people had been jailed, as well as hallways, elevators, and transport vehicles they may have used.

Haglund said in his Dec. 8 email that “[c]leaning and disinfection occurs daily in all areas of the jail facilities. Paper towels and disinfectant are available in general population for inmates to do additional cleaning as necessary.” However, he did not address the Emerald‘s question regarding exactly what cleaning procedures were in place before the outbreak, and if they have changed since.

He also said that those jailed at the Seattle King County Jail “receive, at minimum, a clean cloth mask daily. These masks have two layers. Cloths masks are washed and dried in the jail’s laundry program following industry standards.”

In response to the Emerald‘s question about what kinds of masks those in quarantine receive, Haglund said that “[i]nmates identified as droplet precaution and COVID+ receive surgical (procedure masks) prior to their transfer to droplet precaution and COVID+ housing. Inmates in quarantine – those who test negative for COVID, but who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive – currently receive cloth masks.”

He did not address the contention by protestors who were jailed over the summer that they were denied clean masks.

The press release said that there had been 47 total cases of COVID-19 amongst its jail staff and inmates, before this past weekend’s outbreak. It also claims that the King County jail system has been taking “aggressive” measures to prevent and limit infection.

This past summer, the King County Jail was in the process of upgrading its MERV 10 filters to MERV 13 filters with the aim of finishing by August, Haglund told the Emerald in a July 21 email. “MERV” stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency webpage on the topic of indoor air filters that can help protect people from COVID-19 says that MERV 13 filters — the highest-rated kinds of filters — can “trap smaller particles, including viruses.”

In the July 21 email, Haglund also said that the jail’s 13 medical cells were “designed with positive-airflow capability,” which means that air can leave the room without circulating back in, filtering out any airborne particles that originate in the rooms.

When asked how those who tested positive were being housed, given that there were only 13 such cells available, Haglund said that there is a 32-bed unit at the MRJC “dedicated for housing COVID+ inmates.”

“Medical isolation for COVID+ patients does not require directional airflow. Patients who test positive for COVID-19 are housed in individual cells, and are kept separate from direct interactions with other patients,” Haglund said.

Haglund said that the 54 people who tested negative were not given their own cells at the King County Jail in downtown Seattle.

“The inmates will remain in dorms and continue to maintain social distancing, wear masks, clean and disinfect daily and as appropriate, and quarantine in place for up to 14 days,” he said.

In response to the Emerald‘s question about how the inmates who have been quarantined from the wing where the outbreak too place can be expected to social distance, if they are held together at the King County Jail, Haglund said in a Dec. 9 email that they “are housed in a dorm setting with fewer than six inmates per dorm.” 

“There is ample room for social distancing in the dorms and inmates have been provided with procedural masks to replace their cloth masks while under quarantine.  Inmates continue to be required to wear masks and social distance,” Haglund said in the email.

He said that this was at the guidance of jail health staff, who are part of Public Health – Seattle & King County. The 54 jailed people are also given new procedural masks daily, he said.

With regards to specific cleaning procedures, Haglund said in his Dec. 9 email that the jail’s cleaning procedures have not changed.

“Prior to this outbreak, as part of our Department’s pandemic response, inmate housing was cleaned regularly throughout the day, every day. Inmates also were given access to cleaning supplies such as paper towels and disinfectant spray,” he said. “A safety officer, supervised by a shift commander, was responsible for working with appropriate staff to track the cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing the department’s facilities.”

Despite the outbreak, he said that the jail believes that its existing procedures “remain appropriate in light of the new cases confirmed at KCCF. There are no changes at this time. Our Department continues to follow recommendations from local, state and federal health officials to guide these activities.”

The Emerald has followed up to ask how big the jail cells are and how the beds within these jail cells are situated.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them on Twitter, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image is attributed to Neil Conway under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.