COVID-19 outbreak infects 29 at Cumberland County Jail

Matt Byrne, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·3 min read

Apr. 13—An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Cumberland County Jail has infected 27 incarcerated people and two staff members, jail staff said Tuesday.

The outbreak began last week when staff noticed "a couple of inmates" exhibiting symptoms, and rapid tests determined at least one person was COVID-positive, the jail said.

By Friday, four people — two incarcerated people and two staffers — were positive. Jail healthcare staff and members of the Westbrook Fire Department spent the weekend testing all inmates and staff, and results late Monday night showed the outbreak had spread to 29 people total, the jail said.

It was not clear how many of the 29 people who have since tested positive are exhibiting symptoms; people who tested positive were moved to a separate housing unit inside the facility, said Naldo Gagnon, chief deputy for the sheriff's office.

Universal testing of incarcerated people and staff will continue according to state CDC guidelines, Gagnon said.

Only 42 people incarcerated at the jail have been vaccinated, Gagnon said. That represents 12.7 percent of the 331 people held there as of Tuesday. The first vaccine shipment — for 40 doses, according to the Maine Department of Corrections — was delivered at the end of March, Gagnon said.

Tina Heather Nadeau, executive director for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, gave credit to Sheriff Kevin Joyce for doing what he can to stop the spread of the virus inside his facility.

But, she said, vaccinating incarcerated people has been a low priority for the administration of Gov. Janet Mills. While some states vaccinated prison and jail populations early in the vaccine rollout, Mills administration officials said last month that the state would begin vaccinating incarcerated people as supplies expanded.

"We know the vaccine is the only way to prevent infection and serious illness and death, and somehow the incarcerated people of our state are left behind at each and every turn," Nadeau said. "They are all eligible under Maine guidelines. They should have been prioritized back with other residents of congregate facilities. (Incarcerated people) can't socially distance or engage in the hygienic practices that have been encouraged at the beginning of the pandemic. And they cannot get themselves to vaccination sites. There's no excuse for it."

So far, the Maine Department of Corrections has distributed a total of 75 doses of vaccine to jails in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec and York counties.

Statewide, 520,089 people had received the first dose of a vaccine, or nearly 39 percent of the state population; 386,624 have now been fully vaccinated.

Anna Black, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Corrections, did not respond to a question about when the state will prioritize vaccinating incarcerated people. A spokeswoman for Mills' office, Lindsay Crete, also did not respond to a question about prioritizing vaccination of the jail and prison population.

To receive vaccine doses from the state, a jail's medical staff must be certified by the state to administer vaccinations.

But jails may choose to partner with community health organizations instead of seeking certification, and in that case, the state would have no way of monitoring how many doses had been administered at what county jails statewide, Black said.