A Health Department strike force descended on the Payne County jail Wednesday, armed with COVID-19 tests. Sheriff Kevin Woodward told the News Press he called the Payne County Health Department for help after learning on Tuesday that one of his jailers had tested positive for the virus.

“And less than 24 hours later they are here with 380 tests,” he said.

The 75,000 square foot Payne County detention facility can house up to 404 inmates and 23 staff members.

Woodward said 180 tests would be needed for the jail’s current population, which includes some federal prisoners. Jailers and other employees of the Sheriff’s office were tested and an offer was made to test any courthouse employees who were interested, including judges and the staff in the Court Clerk’s and District Attorney’s offices.

Turn Key Health, the company that contracts with Payne County and other jails to provide medical services, brought in extra personnel to help with testing in the jail while Health Department personnel supplemented with members of the Oklahoma National Guard to test most employees.

Woodward said contact tracing revealed the unidentified jailer was exposed to the virus through a friend outside the jail. He worked last Friday and Saturday, began feeling ill Saturday and was sent home and instructed to seek medical care.

The friend later notified the jailer that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and the jailer was diagnosed Tuesday through a rapid test at a clinic in Guthrie, the sheriff said.

The Health Department’s recommendations are similar to the response for an exposure at a long-term care facility.

Woodward said the jail’s staff is considered to be essential personnel so any staff that aren’t symptomatic will still be allowed to work, but will practice social distancing, wear masks and eye protection.

There are currently not employees or inmates showing signs of illness, he said.

Employees will have their temperatures taken twice a day, upon arrival and halfway through their shifts. Anyone who begins to run a fever or show any other signs of illness will move to the next level and be asked to self-quarantine.

New inmates at the jail are already held in quarantine for their first 14 days, under a previous plan to deal with the pandemic. Most county inmates bond out within a short time, Jail Administrator Reese Lane explained. The remainder move into a unit after their quarantine period ends.

“We are trying to keep from having any problems,” Woodward said.

Lane said the jail has four negative pressure cells to keep infections from spreading that hold up to 16 prisoners under normal conditions. In an emergency situation, more prisoners could be placed in those cells. If numbers grow to exceed the capacity of the negative pressure cells, an entire pod could be cleared to house up to 45 infected inmates.

Woodward said if necessary, a call would go out to other sheriff’s offices to find jails where healthy inmates could be temporarily housed,

Test results for the samples collected Wednesday should be ready in 48 hours.

“Friday is the next milestone,” he said. “That’s when I know if we have an issue.”

Kelli Rader, Regional Director for the Oklahoma Department of Health in Payne and six other counties, said the department has seen an increased number of cases throughout her region, especially in Payne County.

“We’re wanting people to understand that COVID is still here,” she said. 

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