State officials say they’re working to contain Juneau’s correctional facility outbreak

(Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Sixteen of Juneau’s 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been traced to Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

On Monday, state officials spoke to the Juneau Assembly about what’s being done to control the outbreak at the facility.

During the meeting, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink pointed out that the cluster of cases didn’t start in Lemon Creek Correctional Center, they came from the community.

“So these are really more community cases than they are [Department of Corrections] cases,”  Zink said. “Because they are people within the community who just happen to work at (the) Department of Corrections facility, rather than really an outbreak within the corrections facility itself.”

RELATED: Inmate at Anchorage Correctional Complex has tested positive for the coronavirus

Yet since last month, 11 staff members and five of their household members have tested positive for COVID-19, meaning most of Juneau’s cases are directly associated with the facility.

Department officials say it all likely started with one staff member who brought the virus to work.

Last week, the state decided to test all inmates and staff. Another 63 employees were tested and one additional positive case among staff was announced on Sunday.

According to Department of Corrections spokesperson Sarah Gallagher, 165 inmates were tested and 44 declined. All of those tests have since come back negative, except for one that was still pending Tuesday afternoon.

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon said she appreciated the information and feels confident in the department’s response.

But she has heard concerns from the community about the lack of information shared publicly about the cases. Sharing that information could run afoul of federal privacy laws.

“It’s frustrating for all of us sometimes that we don’t get the information we want, (but) there are laws keeping them from giving the information,” Weldon said on Tuesday.

RELATED: Two weeks after Alaska’s first inmate tested positive there’s still no clear answer of how he was exposed

Daryl Webster is the facility’s assistant superintendent. He told the Assembly that they understand people in the community would like to know where individuals who tested positive have been recently and who they came into contact with, but medical privacy laws like HIPAA prevent them from sharing too much.

“So we try to provide as much information as we can that is relevant,” Webster said. “We understand people have a need to know and so within the restrictions placed upon us, we try to do that. If there’s a way to do that better, we’ll certainly look at it.”

Webster said each time someone tests positive, any of their close contacts at work must stay home too while they wait for test results.

That put a lot of staff out of commission over the last month.

“It was only people coming in on their days off and spending several of their days off each week working that allowed us to continue to operate without having to call in assistance from outside of the institution,” Webster said.

Some Assembly members wanted to know whether the department will continue testing asymptomatic people in the facility going forward.

Dr. Robert Lawrence, the chief medical officer for the Department of Corrections, said they’re looking to the Centers for Disease Control and medical partners for guidance on that.

“We do not right now test asymptomatic individuals upon departing the facility, nor do we test asymptomatic individuals during intake at this time,” Lawrence said. “That’s something that we are looking at in the near future.”

Lawrence said there would need to be a 28-day period with no additional cases for the outbreak to be considered contained.

The state announced Tuesday that an inmate at the Anchorage Correctional Complex tested positive for COVID-19, making them the second inmate in Alaska to test positive.

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