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Inmates’ families call for action as cases mount at jail

20 new COVID-19 cases reported at MCCC on Friday

Family and community members wave signs on Waiale Road as motorists pass Maui Community Correctional Center Friday evening. Protesters were calling for the state to take more action as the jail outbreak grew to 75 inmates and one staff member. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — On Friday, as 20 new COVID-19 cases were reported at Maui Community Correctional Center, family members and supporters held signs in front of the jail urging that more be done to stop the spread of the virus at the Wailuku facility.

“We are a year in (the pandemic) and they don’t have good protocols,” said Cara Flores, founder of Hale Hawaii, a group that has been calling for more proactive action against the virus across the state. “It’s sad it is happening here.”

Flores and a handful of others stood outside the jail in a light drizzle on Friday afternoon to rally support for inmates and jail staff.

In addition to 20 new cases among inmates, the Department of Public Safety on Friday confirmed a jail employee had tested positive through independent testing, the first reported staff case at MCCC.

Since the first case was reported at the jail on Feb. 1, the outbreak has grown to 75 inmate cases and one staff member, with 43 active inmate cases, one active staff case and 32 recoveries. No inmates have required hospitalization, said DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.

Nicole Ottersen of Kahului holds a sign that states “They weren’t given the death sentence.” She said her fiance is being held in a unit with COVID-19-positive inmates. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

As of Friday there were 44 inmates in medical isolation and 211 in quarantine.

An initial round of vaccines was given to 150 inmates who elected to take it on Feb. 22. Inmates will again be offered first doses of the vaccines on Monday, a DOH official said. Jail staff have already received their shots.

Nicole Ottersen, who helped coordinate the event Friday and whose fiance is incarcerated at the jail, said that the state needs to take more action.

Family and supporters outlined a list of demands that includes proper isolation and quarantine of inmates who have or are suspected of having COVID-19, proper care for sick inmates, mask-wearing at all times, regular testing of staff and new masks every day for inmates or two cloth masks for wash and reuse.

They also cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data saying that inmates who test positive must be housed in a well-ventilated room with solid walls and a solid door that closes fully. These inmates also must be separated from suspected cases. The group also asked for “prompt sharing of accurate data” on the jail’s COVID-19 infections.

Ottersen said her fiance, Wade Nakoa, wears his mask every day, but not everyone at the jail does. She said the 43-year-old has preexisting health conditions such as asthma that make him more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19. He also has seizures, Ottersen said.

Nakoa tested positive for the COVID-19 antibodies but was not considered contagious, and Ottersen said he was still quarantined with active positive cases.

“They are just mixing everybody,” she said prior to the sign-waving event. “They are contributing to the spread.”

She said inmates are still sleeping four to a cell, with two on bunk beds and two on the floor.

Ottersen said she has “called everybody” for help, but no one had answers and instead gave her other phone numbers to call.

Angelika Serafica said her son has been in the same two-person cell with three other inmates for 25 days as he awaits trial. She claims he was COVID-19 negative went he went in and has been confined with inmates who are positive.

“He finally tested positive,” she said. “They wouldn’t let him out until he tested positive.”

She said she was concerned about speaking out on his behalf.

“I told him, I hope you don’t get retaliation and he said, ‘I don’t care, Mom, just tell them what’s going on.’ They put him in with two guys who were positive.”

Upcountry resident Julie Higa turned out Friday to show support. She said there are ways the jail can lessen the spread of the virus, including housing inmates in tents inside the facility grounds.

“They can separate people,” she said.

She also wanted more government officials to speak up about what is being done to stop the spread of the virus overall and wanted more local residents voicing their concerns about COVID-19 issues, including those who have loved ones at the jail.

Schwartz said in a email Friday that the department is “aware of the concerns expressed by the families,” which is why the jail’s security and medical staff are working long hours to safeguard staff and inmates and mitigate virus spread.

She said facility health care staff are monitoring inmates for symptoms, taking temperatures and making health checks at least twice a day.

All inmates are told to report symptoms immediately to staff. If it is after hours, the facility will phone an on-call doctor for consult, Schwartz said.

She added that staff are routinely tested.

After testing, inmates are placed in designated housing units and separated by medical staff, as recommended by the Health Department and the Public Safety Department Pandemic Plan, Schwartz said.

Correctional facilities are following the plan to medically isolate, quarantine and cohort inmates based on CDC- and DOH-recommended guidelines.

Schwartz said that the jail is providing masks to inmates — they are issued two cloth masks upon entry and are required to wear them, but they also have the option of purchasing masks through the commissary if they prefer different brands or styles.

She added that inmates and staff are required to follow all safety and sanitation protocols including wearing masks, frequent hand washing and maintaining adequate social distancing to the extent possible.

There is also unrestricted access to hot water, soap and sanitation supplies.

Schwartz said the department has a comprehensive pandemic response plan for all facilities statewide based upon current guidance from the CDC and approved by the Office of Correctional Health of the American Correctional Association.

She added that updates on virus case counts are put out every day either through news releases or through the state’s Joint Information Center Daily News Digest.

The department’s pandemic plan and dedicated COVID-19 information and resources page can be found at dps.hawaii. gov/blog/2020/03/17/corona virus-covid-19-information-

and-resources/.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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