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Almost Half of North Dakota Jail Tests Positive for COVID-19

The Grand Forks facility has a population of 195 detainees. There were three positive cases at GFCCC before 85 positive results returned on November 17. The majority of the jail went into lockdown and isolation as a preventive measure.

‘‘As North Dakota has become the epicenter in the national for COVID, it should not come as a surprise that community spread would make its way into the facility, and it has,’’ GFCCC Administrator Bret Burkholder said via email to the Grand Forks Herald. One prisoner was taken to a hospital for treatment but was soon returned to the jail. Burkholder described most detainees’ symptoms as mild to moderate.

Early in the pandemic, Grand Forks County took action to reduce the effect of COVID at GFCCC. Northeast Central Judicial District Presiding Judge Donald Hageer amended the schedule in an attempt to keep low-level offenders out of jail. Hager said it has been a struggle to keep GFCCC’s population low.

‘‘I’m sure Mr. Burkholder is pulling [his] hair out trying to figure out how to keep people there. People get arrested, they commit crimes, and they’re going to end up in jail,’’ Hager said. ‘‘What are [law enforcement officers] going to do with people when they know they’ve committed crimes if there’s no more too at the inn? And for Mr. Burkholder, where’s he going to put them if they’re at full capacity? Where are they possibly going to put any of these people? It’s going to take some pretty hard conversations.’’

Those questions are for the Grand Forks County Commission to resolve, Hager said. Commissioner Tom Falck said the COVID-19 outbreak is a “vexing” problem.

“I’m not sure that there is a solution,” Falck said. “Certainly not a perfect solution.”

Burkholder is trying to figure out how the virus entered GFCCC after months of avoiding a positive case. GFCCC had been quarantining new detainees for 14 days after arrival. ‘‘My only guess, and it is only a guess, were those asymptomatic people were infectious well after those 14 days,” he said.

The number of detainees in isolation dropped to seven cases on November 27, 2020. “The fear doesn’t change,” said Burkholder. With more than a dozen new bookings each week, the possibility of an infectious person entering the jail exists.

Burkholder said the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reviewed GFCCC protocols and procedures and found them to be on par with best practices. “We’re doing what needs to be done,” he said. “With the help of law enforcement and the court,” persons are “prioritized” for booking or release. 


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