With a closed environment and new detainees coming in continually from the outside world, jails and prisons are rife for the spread of influenza, or the flu, authorities say. At the Whitfield and Murray County jails, precautions are taken to try to prevent and limit the spread of flu.

“We monitor them (the inmates) often, and isolate some inmates who are exhibiting symptoms,” said Maj. John Gibson with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail. “With a widespread outbreak, we’ll put all those inmates in one cell block.”

Gibson admitted the environment at the jail can sometimes be difficult to manage.

“There’s so much interaction between inmates — during meals, at medical visits and bringing people in from the outside — and we’re not always dealing with the most healthy people,” he said. “Our (jail) population is mostly young, but we do have some older inmates. And drug users are more subject to the flu because they weaken their immune system. They also don’t take advantage of health care.”

Employees at the jail are advised to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms, and Gibson said the sheriff’s office reserves the right to tell them to go home if they show up sick.

“If we can keep an eye on it, we can keep it at bay,” he said, adding that he checked for cases earlier in the week and was told by the medical staff none had occurred yet this season.

The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu) posts guidelines for correctional and detention facilities specifically related to the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. The CDC notes the “unique environment” of such facilities and advises using many of the same preventive measures it recommends outside, such as covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue, washing and sanitizing hands, and even using facials masks where flu has been reported.

But the agency emphasizes that extra care should be taken in food preparation areas, including thorough cleansing of utensils, not sharing drinking cups and glasses, and proper handling of kitchen waste. Guidelines for caring for flu-stricken inmates are also posted.

Many of the same measures are used at the Murray County Jail, said chief deputy Ray Sitton.

“We’re keeping everything sanitized, and especially after visitation when someone might be bringing something in, we sanitize all the doors and tables,” he said. “We’re also going through the cell blocks with disinfectants.”

Sitton said on Friday the jail population was at 125, but it was up to 145 two weeks ago.

“We’ve averaged around 120 to 125 the last six months,” he said.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Moorer with the North Georgia Health District said, “The medical providers at the jail get the same (news) releases that the CDC provides to doctors.”

A 7-year-old girl who attended City Park Elementary in Dalton died Wednesday morning from illness related to the swine flu. It was the first swine flu death in Whitfield County.

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