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5 inmates test positive for COVID-19 at Taylor County Jail

Published: Oct. 8, 2020 at 7:04 PM CDT
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MEDFORD, Wis. (WSAW) - Five inmates are being isolated at the Taylor County Jail after testing positive for COVID-19.

Sheriff Larry Woebbeking told 7 Investigates all five are asymptomatic and are inmates in the HUBER Program, which gives certain inmates privileges to go out in the community for set periods of time for things like going to work or getting treatment. These inmates are held in a group block away from other inmates who are not allowed out in the community. Currently, Woebbeking said no Taylor County Sheriff’s Office employees have shown symptoms or tested positive.

Antolin Ojeda was a HUBER inmate who was released Saturday. He said on Friday, Sept. 26, one of his cellmates started to have cold-like symptoms, which got worse over the following weekend. Then, a cellmate who walks to work with the one who started showing symptoms also began showing symptoms. Ojeda said he, himself, started to feel crumby Monday, Sept. 28.

“The one that got sick second, actually, on Tuesday he had gone to the nurse to get Tylonal because he was feeling that bad and they took his temperature and it was 100.4, so he did have a low-grade fever," Ojeda said.

Then another started showing symptoms.

“I had mentioned to one of the COs (corrections officers) that the cold or the flu was going around in our block and I was going to be pretty miffed if I get out on Saturday and I’m sick and I bring it home,” he added.

That Friday night, Ojeda noticed he could not taste his food very well. On Saturday when he was released, he got dinner with his wife and son and noticed he could not taste anything at all. The next day, he got a COVID-19 test. On Monday, he was told he tested positive. He said his symptoms have progressed. He then let the sheriff’s office know that he tested positive.

“They never tested any of us, at least not the three weeks I was there,” he added.

Sheriff Woebbeking stated he could not speak to specific inmate health issues, meaning he could not answer specific questions about what Ojeda’s concerns were or what he said. Though, he said the sheriff’s office does not take COVID-19 concerns lightly. So, when asked about the one inmate coming back with a fever, again, Sheriff Woebbeking said he could not answer specifically, but said this:

“I can tell you that we can test for COVID through our procedures, we can’t test for honesty, and the reason I say that is it also lies on the inmate’s shoulders to tell us if they have any type of symptom so that we can put our protocols into place,” he stated.

Since the HUBER inmates have interaction with the community, he said those inmates change their clothes in a separate room away from other inmates and employees. It is a room just before the metal detector to enter the jail. Before any inmates enter the jail, they are asked about if they are experiencing any symptoms and their temperature is checked. This includes new inmates being checked in who are not in the HUBER program.

If someone has symptoms, Sheriff Woebbeking said they will get tested either within their facility or at the local health facility, whichever will get results fastest, and then they are temporarily isolated in a medical room right off of the check-in point until their results come back. Now that inmates have tested positive, he said healthy inmates have been separated out and the others have been isolated together. For the time being, they are not operating the HUBER program.

If a person who was released from the jail and shortly thereafter tested positive for COVID-19, he said, they would immediately begin their contact tracing, monitoring and screening for symptoms, and isolation policy if necessary.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the jail was locked down and they were not operating the HUBER program. Sheriff Woebbeking said they furloughed the program for a while, meaning they sent the HUBER inmates home, but he explained Taylor County does not have electronic monitors or ankle bracelets, so they could not count that time as time served in their sentence, so they had to come back. It is also why they have not allowed HUBER inmates, who are not considered a threat to the community but are serving time, to serve their sentences on house arrest because they cannot monitor them.

Ojeda mentioned during his time in the jail, he noticed corrections officers were not wearing masks. Sheriff Woebbeking said the governor’s orders allows local corrections officers that choice. It states under exceptions: “Incarcerated individuals. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections shall continue to comply with COVID-19 protocols to ensure the health and safety of its staff and individuals in its care. Local governments are strongly encouraged to continue or create COVID-19 protocols to ensure the health and safety of their staff and individuals in their care.” He also showed 7 Investigates inside, saying corrections officers do not have a lot of physical contact with inmates. Communication and contact are largely through windows, doors, or video.

“Whoever is stationed in that control area, they can talk to the inmate back and forth, so if they have certain needs or questions, they communicate through that individual in the pod. We do a lot of our communications through electronic means,” he said.

Nearly all the staff but the sole person in the “pod,” which is where the video monitors are, and one person on their way out, chose to wear a mask while 7 Investigates toured the facility.

Sheriff Woebbeking said while he cannot control employees in their off-time, he strongly encourages them to practice safe COVID-19 precautions.

“It is very important to keep that (COVID-19) out of our facility, not only for our inmates, but for our staff, so we don’t take these things likely. We act on them right away,” he said. He continued that they are in the process of looking through their records and protocols to make sure everything was handled correctly.

As for Ojeda, he said they are waiting to see if his wife or son will test positive as well since they have had spent several hours together without masks before they learned his diagnosis. They are quarantining at home. He also has a roommate who he said is immunocompromised, so he is also staying in a separate part of the home to illuminate contact with Ojeda and his family.

Ojeda was serving time due to drug-related activity, specifically intension to deliver methamphetamine. He said he is a Navy veteran who was overmedicated by the VA and became addicted to opiates. While getting treatment for his addiction in 2015, he said he met a woman who introduced him to methamphetamine and had been running into legal issues around his addictions for the next two years. He said he has been sober for the last four years.

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