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County jail inmates isolated after prisoner gets chickenpox

It wasn’t an escape attempt or a homemade shank that got a Pima County Jail inmate locked away by himself for 21 days. It was the chickenpox.

Not only did the infected man need to be isolated, but his entire dormitory of 193 fellow prisoners was quarantined, said Capt. Greg Gearhart, security support division commander for the Pima County Adult Detention Center.

“Sunday evening, an inmate presented symptoms of chicken- pox and proved to be infectious,” Gearhart said. “He was immediately taken into a negative pressure room that isolates the air he breathes.”

The chickenpox virus, varicella, which is the same one that causes shingles, is transmitted through the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Adults are more likely to have complications from chickenpox than children, the site said. Adults with weak immune systems have had their cases turn into pneumonia. It can cause kidney, heart, joints and nervous system problems. The disease can be deadly and most deaths associated with it, though rare, are adults. The shingles manifestation of the virus can be extremely painful and can require hospitalization for pain control.

While the infected inmate, whose name was not released, will remain isolated in the infirmary, other inmates of dormitories 2F and 2G were interviewed to see if they previously had the virus, inoculated if they had not, and had their blood tested by the Pima County Health Department to determine if they are immune.

Those at risk will remain in quarantine 21 days, Gearhart said. But he expected about 90 percent of the dorm residents will show immunity and return to their regular schedules.

Staff, too, were interviewed, inoculated and tested if necessary, he said.

Gearhart said he did not know how much the nearly 200 blood tests cost. But he said it was a vital measure, and something with which the jail was familiar.

“We’re pretty prepared for this,” Gearhart said, adding a chickenpox outbreak hit the cells three years ago and was immediately contained. He said the jail also has a mass casualty drill once a year.

Courts were notified of the quarantine, Gearhart said, and any court procedures that can’t wait will be conducted with the use of video cameras.

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