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Inmate tests positive for COVID-19 at Jackson County Jail

A Jackson County Jail inmate is being quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19.

Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Josh Aldrich did not name the male inmate, but said he was being kept in a quarantine cell and was showing mild symptoms Friday morning.

Aldrich said there’s “no way to tell” for certain where the man in custody was exposed to the coronavirus, but he was among several tested Wednesday after being held in a four-person unit with an inmate from another county who was released after showing symptoms.

Those who were near the inmate from another county were “subsequently” tested under protocols in place at the jail since March, according to Aldrich, and the single positive test came back Wednesday evening.

The inmate who tested positive was moved “within the next five minutes” to one of the jail’s two negative-airflow holding cells, which were originally designed for tuberculosis patients, according to Aldrich.

“It’s as close to the top priority as anything can be at the jail,” he said. “We don’t want the inmate to get it — we don’t our staff to get it either.”

Some 83 employees work at the jail on West Eighth Street in Medford, according to the sheriff’s office.

Early release wasn’t an option for the inmate who tested positive, according to Aldrich.

“His charges are severe enough that he’s got to stay in custody,” he said.

As of Friday, the inmate wasn’t showing serious symptoms, but Aldrich said the jail will get him medical care up to and including hospitalization if the inmate’s symptoms worsen.

Jail staff have been using heightened protective equipment protocols since the patient’s positive test result, according to Aldrich.

Aldrich and Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler drew guidance from the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames when they set and implemented coronavirus protocols at the start of the pandemic, according to earlier news reports.

The jail has 315 beds, but since March the jail has been using only 230 of them as part of those protocols, according to a sheriff’s office Facebook post earlier this week. Each day about 60 new inmates are booked into the jail, while other inmates get bumped out based on factors that include the severity of the charges and risk to the community.

“We have more bookings per capita than any larger sheriff’s office,” the post stated.

The jail, built in 1981, has what’s known as a “linear” design, where corrections deputies patrol long hallways. On most of the staggered floors are small clusters of cells that open to small common areas with a TV and a dining table. Since at least April 3, newly booked inmates have been kept in separate clusters from long-term inmates. Only after at least 14 days — the time it typically takes for symptoms to show up after infection — are inmates moved to a long-term area.

Although the law enforcement industry considers the jail’s design to be labor intensive compared to modern “podular” designs that put corrections deputies in the center of large common areas, Aldrich said the Jackson County Jail’s compartmentalized structure has helped with coronavirus protocols.

“The things that make it difficult ... have turned out to be pretty good for quarantine purposes,” Aldrich said. “We’ve been unintentionally lucky in this case.”

Aldrich declined to compare or contrast the Jackson County Jail with any specific facility, but stated that many Oregon jails and prisons that use “podular” designs — considered the industry standard — have few options except to keep of their inmates in large groups.

The Josephine County jail in Grants Pass, built in 2000, has a similar capacity to Jackson County’s jail but uses a podular design. That jail was linked to 30 cases as of Tuesday. The Josephine County Jail has a maximum capacity for 262 inmates and currently holds 185.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Jackson County Jail file photo