GRAND FORKS — Eighty-five people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center on Tuesday, Nov. 17.
There are a total of 88 COVID-19-positive people incarcerated in the jail, which had a population of 195 on Tuesday.
Correctional center Administrator Bret Burkholder said the majority of the facility has been placed on lockdown and is in isolation. There are positive cases in 16 out of 20 housing units in the jail.
"As North Dakota has become the epicenter in the nation for COVID, it should not come as a surprise that community spread would make its way into the facility, and that it has," he said in an email to Forum News Service Tuesday afternoon.
Correctional center residents have been tested weekly since five people tested positive at a mass testing event Oct. 20 at the jail.
Burkholder said that, as of Tuesday, none of the infected inmates are hospitalized and most are asymptomatic.
The Grand Forks County jail appears to be the only county jail in the state that currently has more than two positive cases of COVID-19, according to Donnell Preskey Hushka of the North Dakota Association of Counties, who has acted as a liaison between county jails and the state. The number of positive cases in each facility is self-reported by facility administrators.
Early in the pandemic, Burkholder called this his worst-case scenario. After an initial email Tuesday afternoon, Burkholder said he was unavailable for further comment, citing a busy schedule. But Northeast Central Judicial District Presiding Judge Donald Hager said that, with limited resources and limited availability to isolate sick people, the Grand Forks jail is at capacity and out of options.
"I'm sure Mr. Burkholder is pulling hair out trying to figure out how to keep people there," Hager said. "People get arrested, they commit crimes and they're going to end up in jail."
"My concern is for all the law enforcement officers out there that are trying to make sure everybody's safe," Hager said. "What are they going to do with people when they know they've committed crimes if there's no more room at the inn? And for Mr. Burkholder, where's he going to put them if they're at full capacity? Where are they possibly going to put any of these people? It's going to take some pretty hard conversations."
In the spring, Hager amended the bond schedule in Grand Forks County in an attempt to keep some low-level offenders out of the jail. By doing so, the hope was that the jail's population could be reduced enough that staff could effectively isolate and quarantine sick inmates and their close contacts.
They were successful in bringing the population down. However, the pandemic hasn't stopped the jail's steady stream of new intakes who must be housed.
Keeping the jail population low has been an eight-month-long struggle, according to Hager, who said that any more effective mitigation efforts will have to come from the Grand Forks County Commissioners.
"The question should be, not to me, but to the county commissioners, what are you going to do about the space needs?" Hager said. "Bret Burkholder has gone way beyond 100% capacity out there."
Speaking with Forum News Service Tuesday afternoon, Grand Forks County Commissioner Tom Falck called the outbreak a "vexing" problem with no good answer.
"I'm not sure that there is a solution," he said. "Certainly not a perfect solution."
At the County Commission meeting Tuesday evening, Burkholder addressed the commissioners as a last-minute addition to the agenda. No action was taken Tuesday night, since Burkholder's address was added to the agenda as an informational item.
He said that, because the jail has too many positive cases to properly isolate sick inmates, people who test positive are being housed together in separate units. He said so far, one inmate has had to be taken to the hospital, but was released back to the jail shortly after. He characterized most inmates' symptoms as mild to moderate.
Falck and Grand Forks County Auditor Debbie Nelson both asked Burkholder about further population mitigation efforts.
Burkholder said that the jail has had weekly communication with the district court and the Grand Forks County State's Attorney Office to attempt to curtail the number of intakes in the jail to limited success, though the number of offenders who need to be incarcerated is now higher than it has been in past months, making it difficult to reach lower population levels achieved over the summer.
Transferring Grand Forks inmates to other facilities in the state is less of an option, since every North Dakota jail also is working to keep their populations low to protect their residents from COVID-19.
He added that, since staff members are unable to go to work if they test positive for COVID-19 or if they're identified as a close contact, staffing in the jail is one of his greatest concerns. According to WDAY's Matt Henson, Burkholder reported to him that there are currently 2 staff members with the virus.
Though he said the situation at GFCCC is serious, he highlighted a small bright spot: In a meeting Tuesday morning with North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials and doctors — scheduled before jail staff learned of the outbreak — a review found that GFCCC's pandemic protocols and procedures are on par with best practices, according to Burkholder.
"We’re doing what needs to be done," he told the County Commission.