Billings pre-release officials discuss how they're coping with COVID-19 outbreak

Posted at 8:11 PM, Jul 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-16 15:44:20-04

BILLINGS — Depending on individual health conditions, some residents in the Billings men's Alpha House pre-release center will go back to work on Saturday after about 14 days in quarantine following a COVID-19 outbreak, the center's top management said Wednesday.

“It depends on them being clear of symptoms or improving and not having a temperature and the like. Knock on wood, at this point we would expect that by and large a lot of the residents will return to what’s normal, at least during the age of COVID-19," said David Armstrong, CEO of Alternatives Inc. which operates the Billings pre-release centers.

The men's pre-release center has eight active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, Armstrong said. Four were identified through symptomatic tests, and four were identified through surveillance testing by the state Department of Corrections last Thursday.

“We’re hopeful that this Saturday, the first person will be released from quarantine and based on that, more of the other residents," Armstrong said.

The first case was identified on July 4 at 6:20 p.m in the men's pre-release center, Armstrong said. Since then, all male residents who've tested negative have been under more restrictive quarantine procedures then they're are used to in pre-release.

“For instance, going from having people go through food lines to feeding them in their room. Instead of having people come and ask for medication, we provide the medication in the rooms. Having to arrange for people to come out on breaks one room at a time or to do their laundry one room at a time," Armstrong said.

Saturday will complete 14 days since the original case in the men's pre-release, meaning the quarantine will be over for those who are healthy and they can go back to work.

Typically, men have a six-month stay, paying about $440 per month with the ability to hold jobs in the community, Armstrong said.

"We’re hopeful that this delay doesn’t cause much of a delay for most people, but during a quarantine, people are supposed to stay in quarantine. The preference of the health authorities is that they remain in quarantine the full time," Armstrong said.

Q2 has heard concerns from men's pre-release residents that the time off work will be a financial hardship. Armstrong said there is some assistance available for those people through the state Department of Corrections.

"The Department (of Corrections) has transitional assistance that we can apply for. So, if we see hardship, we can apply for that and we can certainly forgive rent. But probably like the general public, if you have the means and the wherewithal to pay the rent, you’re going to be asked to pay the rent," Armstrong said.

An issue with residents' releases arises when a release date is scheduled during the quarantine period. Armstrong said if a resident's release is up to the Department of Corrections, or discretionary, the department will hold that resident until the quarantine is over.

"If they are statutorily ready for release, of course we would release those people. Again, the Department of Corrections would do that. In discretionary releases, where the Department (of Corrections) says they go, those are being held up until after quarantine. We’ve had, I can think of three cases, there’s probably more of where people have been delayed at least till the end of the quarantine," Armstrong said.

As residents go back to work, naturally there's a chance that more COVID-19 cases may show up in the pre-release center. Armstrong said staff are doing what they can to mitigate the risk of infection.

"We’re going to have to continue to be incredibly vigilant about the clients. It would be mathematically improbable that we won’t have future cases, but it’s a learning experience. I think we’ll get better at isolating things that we can," Armstrong said.

According to John Williams, Alpha House program director, none have lost their jobs as a result of the quarantine period.

The eight active men's pre-release cases are all housed in the first floor of the Alpha House building, Williams said.

“We really pay attention to keeping them separate and any cross-contamination exposure risks are mitigated. We have blocked access to just essential staff only in that area of the building," Williams said.

Around 10 to 15 staff members directly work with the residents on a 24-hour basis with a handful more case managers moving in and out daily, Williams said.

Most of their work is done on the second floor of the building where about 150 residents are housed. Staff bring three meals a day to residents' rooms, along with medications and laundry service.

Armstrong said meals are prepared at the women's pre-release center, called Passages, and transported to Alpha House.

Before staff go up to the second floor to serve or do other tasks, Williams said they don full personal protective equipment, including hats, booties, gloves, aprons, face shields and goggles.

Staff disrobe from the PPE before exiting the second floor to prevent spreading contaminates, Williams said.

“Before they come down, we have our PPE disposal stations upstairs. So, they take those off upstairs so they don’t take any contaminates downstairs. Staff are very careful. We’ve learned as we’ve gone on through this week to week, day by day on things that we can improve on," Williams said.

Part of the quarantine procedure at the pre-release center is less time outdoors. Armstrong said staff are only allowing one room at a time to go to the courtyard one to two times per day. Before the outbreak, residents could leave the courtyard as they please.

“We’re trying to accelerate them a little bit. Probably like the general population, I guess we have 50 percent cigarette smokers. They feel a little more urgency to get out there and to get outside. But when you’re doing medications, laundry, food service and the like, it’s not the top priority. So, we’re getting them out between one and three times a day probably once or twice a day," Armstrong said.

In order to move people in and out more quickly, Armstrong said more staff would be required to police social distancing.

"We’re trying to speed that up to get three or four rooms out at a time. How we’d adjust that is we’d have to have the staff available to be out there and observe them the entire time they are in the outdoor area. Again, like normal people in the public, not everybody observes social distancing or keeps their mask on or does the appropriate thing. Right now it’s important that we enforce that," Armstrong said.

No COVID-19 cases have been found in the women's pre-release center, Armstrong said. As staff continue to monitor the situation, more tests will be given as symptoms arise, much the same as other businesses and facilities across the country.

"Really it’s just day to day taking temperatures, asking for symptoms and testing where it needs to be done," Armstrong said.