BILLINGS – Montana officials said Tuesday they have suspended the transfer of state inmates out of two county jails because of COVID-19 outbreaks at the detention centers that combined have infected at least 89 people.
The outbreaks came after the sheriffs overseeing the jails in Billings and Great Falls had earlier pressed state officials to remove some inmates to reduce crowding.
At least 34 inmates at the Yellowstone County Detention Center in Billings and 53 inmates and two staff at the Cascade County Detention Center have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days.
The suspensions for the Yellowstone County jail will remain until it sees a “significant reduction in active virus cases,” said State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright.
Bright did not immediately answer questions about the Cascade County jail. The suspension of inmate transfers from that facility was confirmed by epidemiologist Stacey Anderson with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which had been consulted by corrections officials prior to the suspension decision.
The suspension will halt the transfer of inmates from the two jails to the state prisons in Deer Lodge and Billings or to contract facilities and treatment centers. The action is in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to help keep the virus from spreading to other locations, Anderson said.
State health officials on Tuesday reported six additional deaths from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 97 since the first infection was reported in Montana on March 11. Five of the deaths were in Yellowstone County.
Yellowstone has about 15 percent of the state’s population, but has accounted for about 40 percent of the deaths to date. It has roughly half the infections that are still considered active.
An additional 136 new virus cases were confirmed statewide on Tuesday, including 39 in Cascade County and 19 in Yellowstone.
The number of infections is believed to be much higher because not all people have been tested and because people can have COVID-19 without feeling symptoms.
The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, such as a fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
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