Yet another reason to stay out of jail: The Douglas County Correctional Center in Omaha is experiencing a flu outbreak.
What started out as two flu cases Dec. 14 mushroomed into 23 confirmed cases as of Friday, Douglas County Corrections Director Mike Myers said. While the 23 men and women suffering so far represent a small percentage of the 1,264 inmates, the flu has hit seven of the 29 housing units at the jail.
That has Myers, corrections staff and courthouse personnel scrambling.
“We’re trying to do everything we can do to limit the spread,” Myers said. “This is the most widespread (virus) I can recall in my 12-plus years of being here.”
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This is the hardest and earliest Douglas County has been hit — Nebraska’s largest county was up to almost 530 cases last week, about 100 more than 2018’s peak and two weeks earlier. Statewide, 3,350 people had been diagnosed with the flu as of Dec. 14.
Three nursing homes in Douglas County also have had outbreaks. Phil Rooney, a spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department, declined to name those three but said none of them are “closed or going to be closed.” The nursing homes have worked to put in place precautions and to try to segregate those who have the flu from those who don’t.
The flu has turned seven of the 29 sections of the jail into pseudoinfirmaries. The jail can’t put all of its sick people in its medical unit without jeopardizing the health and welfare of those already there, Myers said, so corrections officers are trying to isolate the sick patients from the healthy ones.
Corrections officers are screening any new jail arrivals by taking their temperature and checking for signs of the flu virus, which causes fevers, body aches, coughing and respiratory problems.
This strain of the flu typically incubates for one to four days, and its effects last one to two weeks.
Officers also are offering the flu vaccine to inmates — the Douglas County Health Department shipped 65 vaccine kits to help bolster supplies, Myers said. To those already infected, nurses are offering and administering antiviral medications to try to stem symptoms.
The flu is in one of the four women’s housing units and six of the 25 male housing units.
“We book 50 new people a day,” Myers said, “so we’re trying to avoid putting healthy people in units where the flu is present.”
Myers said they’re also trying to limit the spread by having correctional officers wear masks and gloves; having kitchen staff deliver food to the sick only in designated, segregated areas; and by having the staff scrub and disinfect all surfaces. So far, three correctional officers have contracted the virus.
The virus has come at an inopportune time. Just as the rest of the country is preparing to celebrate the holidays, jails typically see an uptick in visitors.
Though the jail offers no in-person visits with families, corrections officials are nonetheless encouraging visitors to wash their hands as they use video monitors to talk to their loved ones.
And then there’s court. Douglas County — which has veterans court and drug court — has effectively set up Flu Bug Court. Myers said officials are trying to hold court in the jail courtroom for sick inmates at a different time than they do for healthy ones.
And they’re asking attorneys to conference with their clients via videophone.
Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley said the flu has put a bit of a crimp in his attorneys’ ability to get clients in for bail reviews or early pleas that might get them home for the holidays. The jail is requiring a court order for any transport to the courthouse; some court officials are reluctant to bring over defendants for fear the bug will spread to the courthouse, Riley said.
“I’m comfortable that Myers and his staff are doing the best they can,” he said. “It sounds like it’s a nasty strain they’re dealing with.”
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