A New York Times database has tracked clusters of at least 50 coronavirus cases in a dozen rural jails in Montana, Idaho, Utah and New Mexico. Among them are the Purgatory Correctional Center in Hurricane, Ut., with 166 infections; the jail in Twin Falls, Id., with 279; and the Cibola County, N.M.,Correctional Center, which has reported 357 cases. For months, the jail in central Montana’s Cascade County was free of the coronavirus. Then a few people who had the virus were arrested. By the time Paul Krogue, the jail’s medical director, realized there was a problem, nearly 50 inmates were infected. Some had been sleeping on mats on an overcrowded floor. After weeks battling to contain the outbreak, Krogue got a call that infections were spreading to a side of the jail that had been virus-free.
Now more than 300 inmates and staff members have been infected in a facility meant to hold 365. The Mountain West, which for months avoided the worst of the pandemic, has rapidly become one of the nation’s most alarming hot spots. Local jails are risky venues for inmates and workers, and the short-term holding facilities pose a threat for surrounding communities because people filter in and out of them constantly. In Cascade County, infections at the jail make up about a quarter of all known virus cases. In the past two months the jail released 29 people who were considered actively infected. Krogue said, “When the outbreak at the jail began, social distancing was impossible. Three inmates shared cells designed for two. Inmates did not receive masks until August, and jail officials said many have refused to wear them.