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COVID outbreak reported in Coconino County Detention Facility

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Inmate Covid Vaccinations

Lisa Hirsch sits with the patient to answer questions after administering the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to an inmate at the Coconino County Detention Center in March 2021. 

The Coconino County Detention Facility is testing all inmates and temporarily not accepting nonviolent misdemeanor arrests due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail.

At least 44 inmates and 11 members of the detention staff have COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to a statement from the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office. Testing of all inmates and staff started Thursday. Officials said they expect the total number of confirmed cases will likely increase in the coming days as the results come back.

In an attempt to slow the outbreak, the jail will not accept any nonviolent misdemeanor arrests and self-surrender court commits. The drop in population will allow staff to better distance those who are positive from those who are not and quarantine new inmates for 10 days in accordance with Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

Department officials described the situation as the facility’s “first COVID-19 positive outbreak since health-related protocols to mitigate a mass spreading of the virus” in March 2020.

It’s not clear how long this policy will remain in place.

Detention Services Commander Matt Figueroa said they'll likely turn to video court appearances and remote meetings between defendants and their attorneys in an attempt to further curb the spread. 

In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, 308 inmates and 103 detention staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Only three required hospitalizations and no in-custody COVID deaths were reported. 

Positivity rates stayed relatively low during 2021. Jail officials said months went by without any inmates or staff testing positive, while other months saw about one to two COVID-positive inmates in isolation. 

Like many jails, CCDF limited the contact with the outside world to keep the virus out. It stopped face-to-face public visitations in 2013 and all other physical contact visits were suspended early in the pandemic. It also increased screening procedures for incoming inmates. The jail population dropped significantly during the pandemic, ranging anywhere from around 200 to 300 instead of the typical 400 to 500.

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“Because of the safety measures put in place and the hard work and efforts from our staff, we have been able to fight off a large outbreak of the virus in the facility for almost two years,” officials said in the statement. "This is an unusual accomplishment for congregate settings such as jails.” 

Some increase in the number of positive cases in the jail was expected given the current uptick throughout the county and state. However, the last two years have taken a significant toll on detention staff and the recent outbreak in cases is only further aggravating staffing difficulties. Figueroa said CCSO officials are working to figure out what kind of relief they can offer. 

Jail medical staff have administered 254 vaccinations to the inmate population. The vaccination rate hovered around 30% before increasing to 80%, according to the statement. Inmate vaccination rates have plagued jails throughout the state, but Figueroa said the gradual change in attitude toward the vaccine has improved, with more defendants coming in already fully vaccinated.

Reporter Bree Burkitt can be reached at 928-556-2250 or bburkitt@azdailysun.com.

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