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Whatcom Jail braces for COVID-19

By Hailee Wickersham and Aryonna Willoughby

As of March 12, no one with the Whatcom County Jail has been tested for COVID-19, but the corrections department has been working to put a plan in place.

Prisons and jails are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks due to the large number of people being kept in close quarters. To help halt the spread of the virus, Iran has temporarily released approximately 70,000 inmates. As of March 13, there has been no discussion about American prison systems doing the same.

The maximum-security facility houses approximately 245 people daily, according to the Whatcom County Bureau of Custody and Corrections Services. For context, Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation prohibited non-essential gatherings of over 250 people, while the Bellingham County Health Department says that groups of 10-50 people are too large for safety.

To prepare, the Whatcom County jail has been drawing on previous outbreaks such as the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, said Chief Correctional Officer Wendy Jones. In this case, the department is preparing for two situations for response in the event of an incarcerated person testing positive for COVID-19.

“One is going to be at the point the officer arrests in the stage we call ‘pre-booking,’ which involves a medical screening with questions along the lines of, ‘Are you currently sick? Are you on medication?’ Things like that,” Jones said.

The department is working on changing the medical questioning to screen for multiple diseases. 

“There have been added questions that are specific to COVID-19 and the symptoms it presents,” Jones said.

The second response the corrections department is preparing for is if an already incarcerated person within the facility tests positive for the novel coronavirus, which is called SARS-CoV-2.

“With illness, the first step is to bring them into the facility, and between the hours of six in the morning and nine at night, we call our healthcare team upstairs,” Jones said. “A nurse would come down to screen them and do a thorough medical history.”

In the case of someone presenting symptoms of a virus or disease that is contagious, the Whatcom County jail has two isolated cells available on the third floor of the courthouse that ventilate to the outside.

“Although we don’t have a negative pressure room in the jail, it ejects whatever is in the exhausted air to the outside,” Jones said. “So, it really reduces the chances of anybody else picking up what that offender might have.”

On Friday, March 13, the downtown facility for the Whatcom County Jail began restricting inmate visitation, according to a Facebook post made by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Visiting is restricted to a single person under the regular visiting hours until the emergency status is over. In lieu of in person contact, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office encouraged family and friends to write letters or use the offender phone system.

The Freedom Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that advocates for incarcerated people, has received no new information from prisons in regard to the coronavirus. However, members of the organization are concerned for inmates during these times.

Kiki Elfendahl, the operations director of the Freedom Project, is concerned about possible staff shortages that prisons may be experiencing due to sick employees having to stay home. These possible shortages could affect the inmates’ well-being, Elfendalh said.

Elfendahl said she was also concerned for inmates who might be possibly isolated due to infection. For prisoners, staying at home just means staying in your cell, and isolation for prisoners can be dehumanizing, Elfendahl said; she added that she’s afraid to see that happen.

Garrett Rahn contributed reporting.

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