Detention center quarantines inmates with flu symptoms

Ector County Detention Center staff are working to prevent further spread of illness among inmates after influenza cases were confirmed in the facility.
Ector County Detention Center Director of Nurses Lee Zarsky said that the first confirmed case of the flu occurred Jan. 4 and medical staff immediately jumped into action. She said her staff of eight has been monitoring inmates for symptoms like fever and body aches, as well as ensuring they are hydrated by distributing Gatorade.
Jail Administrator Capt. Steve McNeill said as many as 10 people have had the flu and about another 20 inmates have displayed signs of an upper respiratory viral infection this week, not including officers that have fallen ill during the flu season.
“The main thing that we’re doing is just minimizing their ability to move around throughout the detention center,” McNeill said.
Sheriff Mike Griffis said Tuesday that four cells capable of holding up to 24 inmates each were under quarantine. McNeill said that quarantines for a particular cell are not lifted until there is no sign of fever for at least 24 hours. As of Friday, only one cell with 23 inmates remained in quarantine out of the 650 inmates in custody.
McNeill said that post-fire smoke purge systems in the facility are able to prevent the transmission of airborne pathogens by removing contaminated air through exhaust fans so that people in quarantined areas are not breathing re-circulated air.
“I feel like we’ve taken the appropriate measures,” McNeill said. “There are minimum jail standards set to address this issue but I feel we have met and exceeded those standards to minimize exposure within our facility.”
Isolated inmates that had scheduled court dates this week also had their hearings pushed back as a preventative measure for public health.
“We don’t want to put them in the courthouse among the public and county employees and expose them any more than they already are,” Griffis previously said. “The flu can be deadly to some folks.”
Upon entrance to the detention center, visitors are made aware of the confirmed flu cases within the facility and young children and the elderly are advised to visit with caution. Zarsky said incoming inmates going through intake were also undergoing screening for symptoms.
Griffis said hindsight is 20-20 and he would consider having flu shots given in the jail to help prevent future outbreaks and hospital visits.
“From 7 p.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Sunday morning there had been five inmates taken to the hospital due to flu-like symptoms,” he said. “A lot of times we have to call people in because we don’t have enough personnel to take them to the hospital.”
McNeill showed hesitation to vaccinate inmates due to possible unknown allergies inmates could have, but encouraged staff to still get their flu shot.
Health Department Director Gino Solla said that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine ranges from year to year but can offer more assurance to the recipient that they are less likely to contract the virus or will experience reduced symptoms if they do become sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states that a flu vaccine is made to protect against the three or four flu viruses that research suggests will be most common.
“Some years you might have a 60 percent efficacy and some years might be 30 percent,” Solla said. “Even if you were to get the shot and you’re only covered 30 percent, that’s better than zero.”
He said the health department annually orders flu vaccines for about $14 per dose and charges the public $25 per dose, which includes the administration cost. Solla supported the idea of offering flu vaccines to inmates as a preventative measure.
“I think a dollar spent will be $10 saved down the road, but it’s up to them to make that decision,” Solla said.