BANGOR – Twenty people expected to begin their sentences Friday in the Penobscot County Jail got five extra days of freedom due to an outbreak of flu and flulike symptoms there.
In addition, all visiting hours at the jail, including the Christmas Day visit, were canceled.
Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm signed the stay order on Christmas Day, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Friday. Those affected by the stay are expected to report to the jail to begin serving their sentences on Tuesday.
The jail notified local police departments on Wednesday that the jail would admit only arrestees who are considered a risk to society or who were arrested on outstanding warrants that are for something other than a bail violation. All others are to be summoned and bailed from local police stations.
Ross said Friday afternoon that inmates appeared to be on the mend. The sheriff said that he expected noncontact visits would be resumed in the middle of next week and contact visits reinstated by the end of the week.
The safety precautions were announced late Christmas Eve in a joint press release issued by the jail and the Maine Bureau of Health after an inmate who died Tuesday was determined to have bacterial pneumonia, a possible complication of influenza.
Inmates and jail staff began getting their flu shots Friday afternoon at the jail. In addition, all inmates underwent medical screenings for flu and flulike symptoms, said Ross.
Jason Shank, 22, died at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor less than 24 hours after being taken there for treatment of a respiratory illness. He was serving a 364-day sentence for assault, theft and probation violation. Shank was sentenced in October on the charges that apparently stemmed from different incidents.
“It is particularly tragic when a young person suddenly dies from an infectious disease,” stated Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Bureau of Health in Wednesday’s press release. “Data from other states indicate that this flu season may be more severe than usual among young people; however, the situation is still being studied. Several of the flu-related deaths among young people from other states fit a similar scenario as this Maine resident – sudden onset of bacterial pneumonia while infected with the flu.”
The results of tests on cultures taken from Shank to determine if he had influenza were not yet available Friday, according to Mills.
Mills and her staff worked along with Ross and jail personnel over the holiday to implement measures at the jail to control the spread of the flu and associated bacteria.
Ross said Friday that the cold and flu season hit the jail hard early this week. On Monday, 18 inmates had cold and-or flulike symptoms. By Tuesday, that number had risen to 54 of the 138 inmates being held at the jail.
“Most are general cold symptoms, but a few have flulike symptoms,” said the sheriff. “A couple have been taken to St. Joseph Hospital to be evaluated, but have been returned to the jail without needing to be admitted.”
Other precautions implemented include:
. Separating inmates with respiratory symptoms from those without;
. Offering free flu vaccinations to inmates and staff who have not previously been inoculated;
. Requiring staff members to wear protective masks while on duty and in the facility and issuing masks to inmates whose symptoms include coughing;
. Allowing only on-duty staff into the facilities. No vendors, visitors and volunteers will be admitted until the restrictions are removed.
One exception to the no-visitors rule will be attorneys, according to Ross. However, they are asked to contact jail administrators to arrange times to consult with clients.
Although the Penobscot County facility is the first jail this flu season to experience an outbreak, according to Mills, similar outbreaks have been reported in three nursing homes and a Job Corps Center in the state.
“I think over the next several days, things should ease quite a bit,” she said Friday of the situation at the jail. “These measures, once put in place, are usually quite successful.”
Mills said that the flu and flulike symptoms are widespread in Maine this holiday season. Last week, it accounted for 7 to 8 percent of all visits to doctors’ offices in the state.
She added that on the plus side, schools and universities being closed helped stem the spread of germs, but holiday visiting and the increased number of holiday shoppers could increase the number of reported cases over the next two weeks.
Mills urged people who have not had flu shots to get them.
“We probably haven’t peaked yet,” she said. “We’re still urging people take precautions.”
For more information on the flu and the availability of vaccines, visit the Bureau of Health’s Web site at www.state.me.us/dhs/boh.