Multnomah County continues jail vaccinations amid COVID-19 outbreak

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Feb. 11, 2021 11:03 p.m.

Multnomah County officials will give another 100 COVID-19 vaccines to people in custody at the Inverness Jail amid an outbreak in which at least 145 inmates have tested positive for the virus.

The Inverness Jail is an open dorm setting, meaning all spaces are common areas. That creates unique challenges compared to jails and prisons with individual cells.


During a news conference Thursday, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said jails have been able to keep the virus at bay for months into the pandemic. But that changed this winter.

“In late December, we saw a significant increase in the number of positive cases at Inverness Jail,” he said. “The amount reached the threshold of an outbreak, and we remain in this status.”

Multnomah County is defunding dorms in its Inverness Jail with beds for 118 inmates. Sheriff Mike Reese is concerned that the reduction in jail beds could lead to overcrowding and the early release of some offenders.

A dorm in Multnomah County's Inverness Jail.

Portland Tribune

Early in the pandemic, defense attorneys noted testing inside the county’s jails was limited, so cases could have been present but undetected given that the population is constantly in flux.


So far, 145 inmates and 24 staff have tested positive for the virus in connection with the current outbreak, Reese said. Last week, the jail vaccinated 108 inmates and is expected to vaccinate 100 more starting Thursday. That represents more than a third of the population at Inverness.

Communal living settings such as prisons and the state’s psychiatric hospital have struggled to control the pandemic. Less is known about local jails in part because the people cycle through the facilities far more frequently. This month, officials at the Josephine County Jail in Southern Oregon said 30 people had tested positive for the virus. In January, 20 inmates died in the Oregon Department of Corrections; about half of the 42 inmates who have died since the pandemic struck.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, the lead health officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, said she’s been deeply involved in responding to the outbreak and that county leaders have also consulted with the Oregon Health Authority.

“I can’t image a more complex mix of factors,” Vines said, “including a virus that spreads really easily, a setting with serious space constraints and staffing constraints, and similarly an environment that’s disciplinary where there’s understandability low levels of trust among adults in custody and those charged with their care.”

The jail will receive more vaccines as they become available, said Dr. Michael Seale, who oversees corrections health programs for Multnomah County.

“This is a very difficult time for the people in custody, their families and the staff involved” Seale said. “One of the things I’d like to emphasize is that almost all of the people we’ve identified with COVID during the outbreak have been asymptomatic or have had very mild symptoms.”

After Inverness, the county will turn its attention to vaccinating people in custody at the Multnomah County Detention Center in downtown Portland.