19-06-26 Blaine County Jail 1 Roland WEB.jpg

Blaine County Sheriff’s office implemented new safety measures to keep the novel coronavirus from getting, or spreading, inside this spring.

As people around the world are urged to isolate themselves as much as possible, the Blaine County jail—where inmates and staff coexist in relatively close quarters—is taking new measures to keep the novel coronavirus from getting, or spreading, inside.

“The big priority now is limiting contact,” Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins said.

As of last week, Blaine County has stopped accepting new prisoners sent by neighboring counties or the Idaho Department of Corrections, according to Harkins. All local inmates coming in are now screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

Meanwhile, the jail has suspended all inmate programs, including in-house classes, church services, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The Sheriff’s Office is looking into offering those services remotely through video, Harkins said. In-person visits through a glass divider have also been suspended, and the county is looking into the potential suspension of work release and weekend sentences to reduce the number of people coming in and out of the facility.

But inmates aren’t the only people with the potential to introduce, or spread, the virus inside the jail. Jail staff, who return home to the outside community at the end of each ten-hour shift, pose another set of challenges.

“Of course, they have normal lives [outside of work], interacting with family and friends,” Harkins said. “We’re encouraging social distancing and doing everything to protect themselves.”

The county has installed several hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the public safety building for staff, Harkins said. Blaine County inmates are not allowed access to hand sanitizer because of concerns about the alcohol content, he said, but are given soap “for them to practice good hygiene.”

The Sheriff’s Office is also taking steps to minimize the risk of patrol deputies getting exposed to the virus. Deputies no longer respond to medical calls unless the call involves a life-saving emergency, such as a situation with CPR in progress, Harkins said.

“I feel confident we’re ahead of the game and really taking precautions on how we can protect inmate health and staff health,” Harkins said in an interview Friday, one day before the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced in Blaine County.

Three people in Blaine County have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of 3 p.m. Tuesday. There are eight confirmed cases in Idaho.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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