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Cass highway department storage building could house infected inmates in 'extreme event' of jail outbreak

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Cass County Jail may use a storage building at the Cass County Highway Department in West Fargo to house inmates infected with COVID-19. The building is seen on Monday, April 20, being used to store sandbags. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — Cass County officials have been working to find a location for inmates outside the county jail in the "extreme event" of an outbreak of COVID-19 behind bars.

County Administrator Robert Wilson said at the commission meeting Monday, April 20, that he has been working with Sheriff Jesse Jahner and a local architectural firm to prepare designs for using the east storage building at the county highway department in West Fargo if a need arises.

"Hopefully the drawings will just sit in a desk drawer," he said.

So far, the work done by the architecture firm "includes a review of the existing facility and concept development," according to county records, which note that a "cost of $13,455 has been incurred to date."

The jail already has a segregated area for patients. So far, only one case has been reported there: an inmate who was just coming into the jail and had no contact with other inmates. New inmates are screened before being put in with the general population.

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"The jail is a critical piece in public safety, and keeping it out of there is of the utmost importance," Wilson said about the virus.

He added that the jail was in a "well-situated" position with the separate unit.

In another "last resort" issue, Wilson said law enforcement could require a homeless resident who tests positive for the coronavirus to quarantine.

He said law enforcement could require a homeless resident to quarantine, but it was not clarified where that person would be placed.

State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he had conversations with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the state health department, and it was clear, as a last resort, police could be called to enforce that.

The state has been testing some of the homeless population in Fargo, including a targeted test last week that included employees at the Gladys Ray shelter in central Fargo.

Wilson also said the first county employee to contract the virus was reported on Monday. He said the staff member had been working from home since March and had not been in a county facility or had contact with another county worker since that time.

"It appears our efforts in self-distancing are making a difference," Wilson said. As many employees as possible are working from home, he added.

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He also said the county was planning to coordinate with the cities of Fargo and West Fargo on any reopening plans.

"We're so closely linked we need to be tightly aligned," he said.

Commissioner Mary Scherling asked if there was also coordination with Moorhead, and Wilson said they were keeping in contact.

He added that any reopening would be coordinated with Gov. Doug Burgum and the state health department.

Commission Chairman Chad Peterson said the reopening could be more than two weeks away, although some counties in the state have different situations.

He added that restrictions in nursing homes for visitors and staff could also go much longer.

"I'm glad we're having this discussion," he said.

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Cass County Jail may use a storage building at the Cass County Highway Department in West Fargo to house inmates infected with COVID-19. The storage building is seen on Monday, April 20. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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