COVID-19 outbreak at Pierce County Jail means limiting arrests

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A COVID-19 outbreak in the Pierce County Jail was discovered Sunday, with up to 35 inmates testing positive.

Over the last few days, inmates reported feeling ill and were tested at the jail’s health clinic. By Sunday, 25 to 35 COVID tests came back positive.

More tests are pending, so the numbers could increase.

Following a protocol developed last year, jail officials immediately put 160 to 180 inmates in quarantine. That’s 31 percent of the jail’s population, which numbered 548 Sunday.

“We follow isolation and quarantine protocols as advised by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to stem the spread among the individuals in our care,” Sheriff Ed Troyer said.

The outbreak means the jail will only allow people arrested on suspicion of violent crimes to be booked. That includes murder, manslaughter, first-degree assault, rape, child molestation, kidnapping, child assault, domestic violence and possessing explosive devices.

An email from Patti Jackson, the chief of Pierce County’s Corrections Bureau, was sent Sunday to all police chiefs in the county explaining the new policy on bookings and advising that anybody exhibiting possible COVID-19 symptoms cannot be processed.

“Please know we are all working towards the same goal of a safe, secure, and constitutional facility,” Jackson wrote.

Pierce County jail staff medically screens every person before they are booked. Inmates are provided with masks and given daily screenings and temperature checks, according to the jail’s website.

All three vaccines are also offered at the jail’s health clinic, Troyer said.

Since the pandemic started through June 2021, at least 398,627 people in prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project.

That number is believed to be an undercount. There were 6,254 in Washington state.

The outbreak comes as COVID cases in Pierce County are on the rise.

The county’s totals are 59,076 cases and 644 deaths since the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in March 2020.

Pierce County’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 was 508.8 as of Aug. 18, up from 379.6 as of Aug. 12.

New hospitalizations per 100,000 over seven days for Pierce County is on an upward swing at 10.7. The state rate is 10.4.

Gov. Jay Inslee re-instituted an indoor statewide mask mandate to include vaccinated individuals, which will go into effect Monday.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also issued a “mask directive” last week that strongly encourages face coverings for all people 5 years and older indoors and outdoors regardless of vaccination status. Masks should be worn where social distancing is not possible, according to the directive from Pierce’s top health official, Dr. Anthony Chen.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.