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Struggling with staffing shortages, corrections officers at Oneida County Jail come to work with COVID as virus spreads

Oneida County Jail
Oneida County Sheriff's Office Facebook

Earlier this month, the National Guard helped test 600 inmates at the Dane County Jail for COVID-19. Nearly 90 tested positive.

People who live in jails are at higher risk for getting COVID because they live in such tight quarters.

But staff members at county jails are not required by the state to follow any quarantine procedures if they test positive for the virus.

Instead, management of county jails is left up to their respective counties.

In two Northwoods counties, jail administrators are responding to an uptick in COVID cases very differently.

Because the Oneida County Jail is short-staffed by seven corrections officers, the 26 officers on staff have had to step up to keep up with the needs of the jail.

But as staff members test positive for COVID, that becomes more and more difficult to do, says Oneida County Sheriff Grady Hartman.

“We have to provide care to the inmates,” he says. “They have to be fed and monitored. We have to have people available to do that, so we’re managing the best we can with short staff.”

At the Oneida County Jail, that means employees who test positive for COVID-19 come to work.

“Currently, if an employee doesn’t feel well enough to come to work, then they stay home. If they have COVID and they feel like they can work, we have them work,” Hartman says. “That person would be kept separate from the rest of the staff.”

Staff members are not the only ones catching COVID at the Oneida County jail though.

Last week eight people who are incarcerated at the jail tested positive for the virus, the highest number since the pandemic started.

The Vilas County Jail is now seeing its highest COVID numbers too.

It has one positive case and two probable cases.

“We’ve taken a proactive approach,” Bill Weiss, the Vilas County Jail administrator, says. “We screen inmates coming in. We screen volunteers. We require new inmates to quarantine for 10 days. Inmates get a face mask. When we have contact with them, we wear a face mask.”

Vilas County takes a stricter approach to COVID quarantine guidelines, closely following CDC advice.

If a corrections officer at the Vilas County Jail tests positive, they are told to stay home.

“We are doing whatever is required to keep people that are sick at home because we want to stop the spread,” Wiess says. “We don’t want the spread going to inmates and inmates becoming sick.”

Two-thirds of staff members at the Vilas County Jail have gotten COVID, Weiss estimates, and most caught it in the past month when the omicron variant started spreading.

Like at the Oneida County Jail, corrections officers here also feel the pressure. Some work 16 hour shifts to keep up with what needs to be done.

The situation highlights a challenge county jails across the area are currently facing: how to take care of people in jail when an illness makes staffing shortages even worse.

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