County jail keeps virus cases low

By Amy Byres

The Sandoval County Detention Center has not had a COVID outbreak come from within the facility since the start of the pandemic, said jail Director Gilbert Armendariz.

According to the New Mexico Corrections Department, there have been over 2,440 COVID cases in the state’s correctional facilities, with over 25 deaths, as of press time, and 209 active cases.

“We feel fortunate,” Armendariz said. “But we contributed to that fortune by making sure our staff and inmates had proper personal protective equipment.”

The jail has not had any COVID-positive inmates come from inside the jail. Inmates have tested positive during booking, Armendariz said.

“Testing was a big priority of mine, so the moment the inmate walked into the door, they got tested,” he said.

When inmates test positive or experience COVID-like symptoms, they are quarantined in a negative-pressure room inside the detention center’s medical department. This procedure has prevented a spread of COVID among inmates and staff.

A negative pressure cell controls the airflow in a room. A positive-pressure room has air flowing away from it, while negative-pressure rooms have air flowing into them to prevent airborne micro-organisms inside from getting out, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We will place them in this negative-pressure room, and then we look at their charges and we look at getting them released. For the most part, they get released,” he said.

Sick inmates are sent home or to a shelter the New Mexico Department of Health set up for COVID cases, Armendariz said.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights. I was hoping we would not get a spread here. My job is to help mitigate the spread; I was not naive enough to think we would not get a positive case here,” he said.

At SCDC, 22 staff members have had COVID-19, but Armendariz says they were infected outside the facility.

“Unfortunately, they would get COVID from relatives, family members, from friends that they had been with, but we have not had a spread of COVID cases within the detention center,” he said.

Staff members are tested for COVID-19 weekly or bi-weekly, Armendariz said.

The facility is undergoing renovations requiring contractors to enter. Before coming in, they participate in a health screening and have their temperatures taken.

Staff entering the jail must do the same, Armendariz said. PPE, like gloves and masks, is accessible to all staff and contractors.

“We have been able to act swiftly to make sure no one stays in here that might be positive,” Armendariz said.

The DOH has reached out to New Mexico Counties, who notified detention centers are included in phase 1B. The phase includes people over the age of 16 that are high risk, front-line essential workers unable to work remotely and vulnerable populations, like inmates.

It is estimated phase 1B takes place winter through spring, according to the DOH. Armendariz does not know when inmates would start receiving the vaccination.

Staff has started getting immunized.

SCDC has to receive the Moderna vaccine because the facility cannot store the Pfizer vaccine at the required, below 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The

Moderna vaccine has to be stored below 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the CDC.

It is Armendariz’s hope everyone working and living at the facility receives a vaccine. Inmates are required to be vaccinated unless they have a medical reason preventing a vaccination, Armendariz said. Staff can refuse the vaccine.

“My hope is all the staff gets vaccinated, and we are working through that process,” he said.

When it comes to inmates being vaccinated before the general public, Armendariz said he does not have an opinion.

“That is not for me to decide. My job is to make sure this facility is safe, and I know part of that responsibility is to make sure the public is safe, and that is not necessarily from COVID, it is making sure these inmates are secure,” he said.

Armendariz received the Pfizer vaccines and receives his second shot Wednesday. The added layer of protection from the vaccine makes Armendariz feel safer, he said.