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COVID-19 infections spike at Riverhead jail, Suffolk sheriff says

The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead has

The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff, Sheriff Errol Toulon said Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

Eleven inmates and 43 staff members at the Suffolk County jail in Riverhead have recently tested positive for COVID-19, Sheriff Errol Toulon said Wednesday, blaming the outbreak on the Thanksgiving coronavirus surge.

The inmates and most of the staff members infected have experienced mild cases, Toulon said.

Sheriff's office Investigator Sgt. Keith Allison, 52, died Dec. 17 from COVID-19. Allison was the first employee from the sheriff's office who had been hospitalized due to the virus, though several had been diagnosed over the last nine months, Toulon said last week. COVID-19 has killed more than 4,500 people on Long Island.

The inmates who recently tested positive had all been housed in the same pod, Toulon said. They were transferred to the Suffolk County jail in Yaphank, where they will be quarantined under the supervision of the county health department.

Three inmates and about three dozen staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus before the Thanksgiving surge, Toulon said. Jail officials became worried right before Thanksgiving when the number of staff members testing positive spiked.

"We were very concerned that this might happen," Toulon said of the uptick in infections. "I can’t dictate what people do or where they go outside work."

Public health experts and corrections official have said prisons and jails are especially vulnerable during pandemics because inmates and staff share cramped spaces for long periods. Many facilities are overcrowded and poorly ventilated, and medical care is sometimes substandard.

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More than 276,000 inmates nationwide have been diagnosed this year with COVID-19, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the country's criminal justice system. Toulon said his office has been able to protect inmates by requiring them and staff to wear masks. The jails are deep cleaned on a regular basis and officials are housing inmates in every other cell to promote social distancing.

"We have to continue to be vigilant," Toulon said.

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