Details of COVID-19 outbreak at Great Falls jail emerging

Posted at 8:09 AM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 10:28:07-04

GREAT FALLS — Public health officials joined the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office on Monday to announce 55 confirmed COVID-19 cases that stemmed from a single case at the Cascade County Detention Center.

In all, 53 inmates and two staff members tested positive for the virus.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter told MTN News on Tuesday they're working hard to keep infected parties separated in the facility with testing capabilities in place.

Slaughter said he plans to keep all prisoners as healthy as possible; asymptomatic individuals and those who appear healthy are still tested on a weekly basis. He said those tests have a turnaround time of 48 hours.

"Our medical partners - City-County Health, Alluvion - are working with our medical and they’re expediting those as fast as they can to speed up that process," Slaughter said.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki told MTN News he's seen one case already requesting a lowered bond amount and expects more cases in the coming days.

Slaughter says he's worried about releasing violent offenders back into the community, who could spread the virus.

“If they're in here, that tells me that they've reached a level of risk that our judges don't feel comfortable releasing them,” he said. “Or they would've been released already under pretrial.”

But the decision to lower those amounts lies in the hands of district judges.

While inmate health and reduced bond concerns due to COVID-19 concerns are in the spotlight, it’s also important to highlight that Slaughter says most inmates in jail choose not to wear masks.

“Do we spend a bunch of money - keep reissuing masks and try to enforce this mask issue? I mean, how do you enforce it on somebody who's already in jail?,” he said.

The two staff members who tested positive are quarantining at home.

Slaughter said funding also becomes a factor in why jail staff can’t be locked down with inmates should a larger outbreak occur.

“We can’t incarcerate our staff, that's essentially what we'd have to do,” said Slaughter. “Or we'd have to pay them to be here and quite honestly the overtime on that would be quite astronomical.”

While he said there’s no room for certain things in the county budget, commissioners were able to offer more support to staff after Monday's announcement.

On Tuesday, Cascade County commissioners gave approval for the purchase of a new body scanner that will reduce physical contact at the jail.

Slaughter told MTN News the new body scanner will replace a model the Sheriff’s Office had been testing for several months at no cost to taxpayers.

In addition, in response to a question on the KRTV Facebook page, Slaughter said there are no plans to utilize space at Montana ExpoPark for infected patients, saying they have a contingency plan for this situation and are following it.