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Amid COVID-19 pandemic, Crookston jail readies for an outbreak

The jail implemented new cleaning and screening protocols on Thursday, March 13, but separating sick inmates from healthy inmates is easier said than done.

A cell at the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston
A cell like this one at the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston can bring Tri-County Community Corrections as much as $76 per day for housing Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates. Tri-County projects making $350,000 to $400.000 this year by housing federal prisioners.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FPRKS HERALD

CROOKSTON – As more coronavirus cases are reported throughout Minnesota and the U.S., the inmates of the Northwest Regional Corrections Center have followed the news as it evolves through the TVs that play in their living areas day and night. Administrator Joey Pederson said that overall, inmates are largely taking the news calmly.

But as NWRCC prepares itself for the possibility of an outbreak in the jail, Executive Director Andy Larson said the facility is grappling with a number of challenges unique to incarcerated populations.

"A lot of attention is being paid to schools closing their doors, conducting their classes through the internet," Larson said. "We don't have that option. We're a service that has to be provided 24/7, regardless of what's going on in the community."

The Crookston facility implemented new protocols Thursday, March 12, as precautions against coronavirus and COVID-19. The expansions to the facility's cleaning and intake processes come after about two weeks of discussions and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and local public health agents, Larson said. No changes have been made to the jail visitation process, as visitation at NWRCC is already done remotely through video calls.

As of Friday afternoon, March 13, there were 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, and 550 people had been tested for the illness in the state. There are no confirmed cases in Polk County.


Since Thursday, Larson said jail staff have started taking inmates' temperatures as part of the screening process. Anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees, as well as anyone who has a cough or sore throat, has traveled to high-risk areas and monitored separately from the general inmate population. The same is happening for anyone who may have had contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

That's easier said than done, Larson said. While in theory, it's simple to house sick inmates in one unit and healthy inmates in another, it's unlikely any kind of quarantine process will be that straightforward, he said.

"Where it becomes complicated is if we had two inmates who are high-risk, and two inmates who are in protective custody, and two female inmates – now we've got six inmates total, but each of them requires their own separation," he said. "So that's where it's complicated. I can't give you a firm number there."

No inmates have yet to be separated from the general population due to the newly-implemented screening process, Pederson said. Larson said that if a patient did become symptomatic, it's unlikely they would be administered a COVID-19 test unless they had traveled to a high-risk area or had direct contact with someone who had already tested positive, per CDC guidelines. He said hospitals follow strict rules about when to accept an inmate with severe symptoms who doesn't meet those testing guidelines.

On Friday, 166 inmates were housed at NWRCC. Of those, six are 60 or older. Larson said he wasn't immediately sure how many current residents are immunocompromised, but that the number fluctuates regularly. He added that one challenge the facility faces is that jail populations tend to be less healthy overall and more susceptible to illnesses than the general population.

The jail contracts with Polk County Public Health for nursing and medical services, and there are typically one to two nurses on staff during the day. Larson said that in the event of an outbreak within the jail, he said their goal would be to contain it within the facility as much as possible, rather than bringing in additional medical staff or transporting inmates to outside treatment facilities.

"The reason I say that is because in the event that it reaches us, there's probably a high probability that it's also impacting our communities and local hospitals," he said. "We would not want to unduly tax those resources."

But in the event that an outbreak could no longer be safely and effectively contained within the jail, Larson said staff would certainly explore other options. Pederson said they've also begun preliminary discussions about longer-term solutions further down the road in case they become necessary, from transporting healthy inmates to another facility, to moving some inmates to electronic home monitoring, to ordering temporary release for some inmates.


But they're not at that point yet, Pederson said. Based on information that he's received from the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health, he said the likelihood the jail will be significantly impacted remains low.

"At this point, assuming we don't get any positives, hopefully we'll be able to manage this," Larson said.

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