FARGO — The Cass County Jail conducted mass testing Tuesday, May 19, for coronavirus in inmates and correctional officers, likely making it the first jail in North Dakota to do so.

With the help of the North Dakota National Guard, the jail tested about 160 inmates and 100 staff members at the facility, Jail Administrator Andrew Frobig said. The National Guard wasn’t aware of any other jails in the state where inmates and staff have been tested.

“We just want to make sure that we are keeping our inmates safe and doing the best thing that we can for them to try to keep it out of the facility so people don’t get sick,” Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said.

Jahner said he asked the National Guard, which has helped conduct multiple testing events around the state, to come to the jail to test inmates and staff as a preventative measure. Staff members want to determine if anyone has the virus so they can separate healthy inmates from infected ones.

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“That’s really what the goal of this is, is to get that baseline and be able to move people around inside so that we can get more room inside our facility as we begin to take in more intakes,” Jahner said.

The jail reported its first case of coronavirus on April 12 when an arrestee was booked into the facility. Several others have tested positive for the virus, but those have come from new inmates, Frobig said. It hasn’t, to their knowledge, spread inside the facility, and no cases have been confirmed in staff.

Cass County has taken multiple precautions in attempts to prevent the virus from entering the facility, from screening and isolating inmates to issuing masks to everyone in the jail.

Large state-run facilities also have opted for mass testing. The State Hospital in Jamestown said Tuesday it conducted nearly 500 tests on patients and staff last week. The State Penitentiary in Bismarck and James River Correctional Center in Jamestown also have been tested, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Tuesday.

“We are testing staff and residents so that we can identify if we have the virus within our facilities,” spokeswoman Kayli Richards said. “We want to make sure we know who may be sick so we can keep those who tested positive, as well as the rest of our staff and residents, healthy.”

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No cases were confirmed in the 365 State Hospital staff who were tested, and only one of 124 patients had a positive test, state Human Services spokeswoman LuWanna Lawrence said.

Three inmates at the state penitentiary tested positive, as well as one JRCC staff member, Richards said.

“Our staff have worked quickly and effectively to quarantine and isolate residents who are ill to mitigate the spread among the facility,” Richards told The Forum. “DOCR staff have been well-prepared in the event someone tested positive and have continuously followed all the changes that have taken place to ensure the well-being of themselves, their families, and our residents.”

The state corrections department had to wait for tests to become available before it could start testing, Richards said. It wants to test other facilities by the end of the month, she said. It has limited the number of new intakes, stopped in-person visits and released more than 100 inmates on early parole to help with coronavirus mitigation.

Other facilities

Clay County has not done mass testing, Correctional Facility Administrator Julie Savat said. Following the advice of medical recommendations, it has tested when needed and has not had any confirmed cases, she said.

The Forum contacted multiple jails in North Dakota, including the Stutsman County Correctional Center. Jail Administrator Chad Jackson said it hasn’t conducted mass testing, but “there is always a possibility that will happen.”

No one has tested positive at the facility, Jackson said. Like many facilities, Stutsman has screened intakes, given inmates masks and quarantines inmates if needed.

It has not released any inmates due to coronavirus, but it lost people as inmates served out their sentences or were released on bond, Jackson said.

That has helped cut the jail population from an average of 70 inmates to 35, he said.

The Burleigh Morton Detention Center in Bismarck hasn’t had any positive cases from inmates or staff, said Burleigh County Deputy Sheriff Maj. Steven Hall, the facility’s assistant jail administrator. The jail also has several tiers of transitioning intakes into the general population, including monitoring new inmates in single-person cells for the first several days.

The jail doesn’t plan to conduct mass testing since it hasn’t had any positive cases, Hall said.

Keeping the jail healthy translates into keeping the community safe, Jahner said. Knowing who is ill allows the jail to separate those inmates from healthy ones, make more room and ultimately have more space to take in individuals who may pose a risk to society, he said.

“We want to make sure that we’re maintaining a healthy facility, safe facility,” Jahner said.