Officials look to reopen virus-plagued Maine jail to new inmates

The jail has been diverting new arrestees to a nearby county to avoid detaining more people in a building where 48 inmates and 17 COs have tested positive


By Steven Porter
Portsmouth Herald

ALFRED, Maine — Officials are aiming to resume booking new inmates at York County Jail next weekend, as long as a major coronavirus outbreak among the facility's inmates and staff doesn't grow.

The jail for the past two weeks has diverted all new arrestees to Cumberland County, to avoid detaining more people in a building where 48 inmates and 17 corrections officers have tested positive.

Very few of those who tested positive ever showed any COVID-19 symptoms, according to York County Manager Greg Zinser. Those showed sickness experienced modest symptoms, like dry coughs, fevers and diarrhea, but none required hospitalization, he said.

All but four of the inmates and two of the corrections officers who tested positive have completed their required quarantine period, signaling the situation may be nearly over, Zinser said Wednesday.

"We're cautiously optimistic but still recognize COVID-19 is real, it's out there, and it can make people really sick," he said.

Sheriff Bill King told the York County commissioners on Wednesday the plan is to reopen the jail's intake area on or about Sept. 26. If public health officials identify even a single new case at the jail by the end of next week the facility would remain in a state of emergency and keep diverting new inmates, he said.

All of the inmates and staff who have undergone follow-up testing thus far have tested negative, but there's one potentially relevant case officials are monitoring, Zinser said.

A vendor affiliated with the jail tested positive within the past week, but contract tracers with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention are still working to determine if the vendor contracted the virus at the jail or elsewhere, he said.

The discovery of a new positive case at the jail would kick off a four-week delay, he added.

The commissioners authorized King to extend the jail's emergency until the date of their next regularly scheduled meeting, Oct. 7, if necessary.

Jail superintendent sidelined

Local officials still won't say what exactly is happening with York County Jail Superintendent Lt. Col. Mike Vitiello. The jail's long-time administrator still has his job, but he isn't at the helm of daily operations, Zinser said.

Vitiello was on a pre-planned absence when the COVID-19 outbreak came to light, so jail operations Capt. Dan Bean took the lead as incident commander, Zinser said.

"For continuity of operations, we're retaining him as the incident commander," Zinser said of Bean, who has been the jail's deputy administrator for years.

Zinser declined to say if Vitiello ever returned from his absence, adding county officials do not comment on personnel matters. King and Bean are handling jail operations, he said.

When asked Wednesday about Vitiello's employment, King did not answer. He referred questions back to Zinser.

Bean and Vitiello did not respond to requests for comment.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said last Friday state officials from DOC and CDC recently visited the York County Jail for a courtesy tour, answering questions and making suggestions in a cooperative way.

Although King publicly acknowledged mask-wearing was encouraged at the jail when it should have been required, Liberty said DOC officials are satisfied with the progress they have seen since.

Liberty said it's his understanding local leaders placed Vitiello on administrative leave. Zinser declined to say whether Vitiello was placed on leave.

Amy Fairfield, an attorney from York County who is on the jail's board of visitors, said Zinser has a responsibility to be transparent with the public about the status of Vitiello's taxpayer-funded leadership position.

"That's an extremely important position, especially in light of and in the context of what has recently occurred at the York County Jail," she said.

Fairfield complimented Vitiello's leadership in the early months of the pandemic.

Zinser said the county commissioners have brought in an outside investigator to review circumstances of the jail's outbreak, but declined to identify the person or firm.

County commissioners Chairman Michael Cote has said the investigator will conduct a thorough and timely review, including an assessment of the extent to which the jail observed proper pandemic protocols.

No one has been formally disciplined for circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zinser said.

In addition to cases at York County Jail, there were seven confirmed cases among family members of jail staff and nine additional probable cases among family members of jail staff, as of last Thursday, according to Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah.

The cases of two other York County employees who tested positive were deducted from the tally associated with the York County Jail outbreak after Maine CDC determined they were contracted elsewhere in the community, Zinser said Wednesday.

Shah has said a York County Jail staffer attended an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area that has been linked to 175 cases and seven deaths across multiple Maine counties. None of the deaths have been associated with the York County Jail.

The first known case of COVID-19 at York County Jail was identified July 9, an inmate who had been booked the day before without experiencing any symptoms.

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©2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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