COVID Outbreak in Benton County Jail

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LEAD: A Covid outbreak in the Benton County jail is affecting forty-five percent of inmates along with 24 staff members and is the first major outbreak in 18 months. NWPB’s Dori Luzzo Gilmour reports.

Luzzo Gilmour: Four hundred and twenty inmates are housed in 20 units. Nearly half of those inmates are affected by the Covid outbreak.  At the beginning of Covid, staff at the jail worked to lower the inmate population and make sure they had room for quarantining

Public information officer Lieutenant Joshua Combs details:

Combs: “Why we got so far out in front of this early on…no one likes to hear about releasing inmates from jail…that’s not a popular idea especially on this side of the state. We have an obligation to the people that we care for here, if we can’t house them safely, and provide reasonable protection, then we shouldn’t have them here. “

Working with county prosecutors and judges to release non-violent inmates meant that for much of the pandemic, the jail has managed to not have an outbreak.

The Benton County Jail office does not require vaccination for staff. However, everyone is required to wear a mask.

Combs: “They are issued to all inmates…they are actually issued two because we launder them twice a week. So that way they are offered a spare when they turn one in to get laundered. And while we have this active outbreak in the facility we of course require N95 masks.”

Combs declined to speculate whether the Sheriff’s Department is going to change their employee vaccine policy.

Testing and medications to treat the illness are being provided and no inmate has had to be transported to the hospital because of symptoms.

In addition to inmates, the staff of the jail has been affected. 24 officers went on medical leave with 18 returned to duty and 6 on continued leave.

The jail did offer an incentive program to get inmates vaccinated and about one hundred and fifty did get their first shots.

Combs: “Kind of questioning the ethics of it… is like that okay to offer something in exchange for someone getting a vaccine. And then the state came out with their lottery idea and it was like okay, if the state can do it, we can do it. We started a Soups for Shots program and offered people Ten Top Ramen Soups…”

Some of the inmates only received one shot before declining a second shot.

For NWPB, I’m Dori Luzzo Gilmour.

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