Cluster of COVID-19 cases in Multnomah County jail appears to grow

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Dec. 23, 2020 9:41 p.m.

Multnomah County is currently dealing with its largest outbreak of COVID-19 inside its jails since the pandemic began. As of Wednesday, nine inmates across two facilities had tested positive.

The sheriff’s office announced an initial case on Dec. 17, stating the day prior that one of the inmates tested positive for the virus at its detention center downtown. The Department of Corrections Health tested the entire housing unit and found three additional inmates were positive for the virus. On Dec. 18, three additional inmates tested positive.


This week, two additional cases were discovered after testing at the Inverness Jail, the county confirmed Wednesday.

In these most recent cases, Corrections Health has used rapid COVID-19 antigen tests, which they recently received.

“The affected housing unit remains on quarantine,” Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, a spokeswoman for the county said in a statement. “The unit will be retested next week per Public Health recommendations.”

One of the who tested positive on Monday is Joseph Dibee, according to his attorney Matt Schindler.

Dibee is a federal inmate charged as part of an eco-terrorism conspiracy to destroy government property by arson. He was allegedly part of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, groups that were largely one in the same and active during the 1990s. Dibee’s charges stem from the 1997 arson of the Cavel West horse meatpacking plant in Redmond. Dibee was arrested in Cuba in August 2018 and flown to Portland. Apart from a brief release, he’s remained in the county’s jails.

Since Oct. 20, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aikin has been considering a motion for Dibee’s release. She previously released Dibee to his sister’s house in Seattle, but that release was overruled by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice appealed.

Schindler expressed dismay at how jail staff responded to his concerns about his client. “It’s been ridiculous,” he said. Dibee is medically vulnerable because he has asthma.


Aikin had ordered prosecutors to send weekly status reports about COVID-19 cases in the Inverness Jail.

On Dec. 17, Dibee told Schindler he was feeling sick. But Schindler wasn’t worried about COVID-19. Those weekly reports had shown no cases, even the most recent report on Monday.

On Dec. 19, Dibee lost his sense of taste and smell, which Shindler said he reported to jail staff.

“I called medical and said ‘hey my client has lost his sense of taste and smell. Don’t you need to test him? I’m worried he has coronavirus,’” Schindler recalled.

He said he didn’t hear anything back.

The next day, jail staff tested Dibee for strep throat, Schindler said. On Monday, Dibee was finally tested for COVID-19, which Schindler learned from Dibee late Monday that he had tested positive.

“I still haven’t heard anything from federal prosecutors about this,” he said.

The U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Oregon didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sullivan-Springhetti said state and federal privacy laws prohibit her from commenting on individual cases, but said in general the county has followed its health protocols in these most recent outbreaks in the jails. She said everyone who gets booked into the jails are screened, as well as on-going screening, like temperature checks.

“When a case is identified, plans for rapid testing, isolation and quarantine are developed in direct consultation with the Multnomah County Communicable Disease investigations team and Multnomah County Health Officer,” she said. “Public Health has not linked any MCSO staff cases to the adult in custody cases so far.”

Since the pandemic began, 32 of the 800 Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office employees have tested positive across seven different locations.