An outbreak investigation is underway after two inmates at the Clallam County jail tested positive for COVID-19, while cases continue to rise on the North Olympic Peninsula, especially in Clallam County.
Clallam County confirmed 18 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, while Jefferson County confirmed four, said county health officers.
The new cases in Clallam County have primarily been driven by small gatherings and workplace exposures. However, the county is starting to see cases stemming from Thanksgiving gatherings that had out-of-county visitors, said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer.
It is believed the novel coronavirus was brought into the Clallam County Correction Facility by a “professional visitor” who visited one of the confirmed cases, as well as two other inmates, who are now in quarantine, according to Wendy Peterson, chief corrections deputy, in a press release Thursday.
The two patients and the two potential exposures are quarantined in separate cells, Unthank said Thursday.
Two or more cases that are epidemiologically linked within a facility is the definition of an outbreak, she said.
One inmate showed symptoms on Nov. 25, and jail medical staff immediately took precautions to quarantine the inmate from others, the release said, adding that another inmate who was housed with the initial case presented similar symptoms and was quarantined shortly afterward.
On Wednesday, jail staff received the positive COVID-19 test results for the two inmates, the press release said.
Using security camera footage, the workers at the jail pinpointed where the virus was introduced into the jail, determining a “professional visitor” had contact with one of the positive cases and with two other inmates, the release said.
The two sick inmates have “relatively mild cases” while the two potential contacts had not shown symptoms as of Thursday afternoon, Unthank said.
All facility staff were tested for COVID-19, as well as inmates with direct or second-hand exposure to the two cases. The test results were pending on Thursday. Unthank expects to receive the results today or Saturday.
All corrections staff are required to wear face masks at work, and when interacting with the two sick inmates, they are in full personal protective equipment (PPE) of gowns, gloves, face masks and face shields, Unthank said.
While any outbreak is concerning and potentially dangerous, Unthank said she is impressed with how facility staff have managed the situation.
“The corrections facility staff jumped on this really quite quickly and reached out to us for support,” she said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to slow any spread based on that.
“It’s a challenge to keep people safe in that kind of a situation, just because you have a lot of folks in a shared airspace.
“I do think that the precautions that the sheriff put in place to actually reduce the jail population … has been incredibly important in protecting outbreaks so far.”
Five North Olympic Peninsula residents remained hospitalized for COVID-19 on Thursday — four Clallam residents and one Jefferson, said Unthank and Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.
While the Peninsula has been spared so far from severe upticks in hospitalizations, Locke is concerned about the high prevalence of the novel coronavirus statewide and other hospitals across the state showing strains.
“We’re watching statewide that hospital beds are filling up, and that’s significant for Jefferson County residents because, ideally, if someone is severely ill, we transfer them to an urban (intensive care unit) setting,” Locke said.
“We’ve actually saved several lives that way, but that may not be an option if the ICUs are full in places like Seattle and Tacoma and Snohomish County.”
Both county public health departments continue to prepare for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. If approved, the state could receive the first doses of Pfizer’s vaccine as early as Dec. 15 and Moderna’s by Dec. 28, Locke said.
The first priorities for vaccines are frontline health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, he said.
Clallam County has confirmed 551 cases of COVID-19 since March, with 180 active cases, more than 500 people in quarantine due to exposure and four deaths, according to Clallam County Public Health data.
Jefferson County has confirmed 174 cases of COVID-19 since March, with 17 active cases, more than 40 people in quarantine due to exposure and one death, according to the Jefferson County Public Health data.
Jefferson County Reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at [email protected].