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A massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Hennepin County workhouse in Plymouth has sickened 30 residents and five staff members since early November.

Officials learned of the outbreak after a resident showed signs of the virus and tested positive Nov. 4.

The facility offered voluntary COVID testing to the 106 residents and 180 staff. Residents with the illness were placed under medical supervision in the facility's 10 isolation cells, the gym and another recreational area, said Karen Kuglar, who oversees the workhouse, the juvenile detention center in Minneapolis and the youth residential treatment facility in Minnetonka.

Two residents were taken to a hospital but returned to the workhouse the same day, Kuglar said. No other resident or staffer has tested positive for COVID since the initial outbreak.

Kuglar said officials aren't sure what caused the outbreak. In the previous 20 months, the facility had seven positive virus results.

"We've worked extremely hard to keep COVID cases out of the facility," she said. "It is what drives my work during the pandemic. When we got the positive case, it just didn't seem right."

The workhouse is defined by the state as a congregate care facility, and Kuglar said three or more cases of the virus is considered an outbreak. The Minnesota Department of Health described the current surge as a blizzard.

The residents and staff who agreed to COVID tests will be checked every seven days over a two-week period. Medical staff agreed the gym was a safe place to house residents with COVID because everybody there had the virus and it was a low-traffic space.

Of 635 inmates in the Hennepin County jail in Minneapolis, 16 have COVID, according to the county. To date, 543 inmates have tested positive. The Ramsey County jail has four inmates with the virus, and the Dakota County jail has had 20 cases since March, 2020.

The workhouse has had strict COVID protocols and practices since the pandemic started in March 2020, Kuglar said. All residents entering the facility are tested immediately and quarantined for two weeks. Staff are screened when they come to work. Staff and residents are given surgical masks each day.

Social-distancing markers are on the floor to show where residents should stand, and meal tables have limited seating. The county also bought new cleaning equipment and enhanced its cleaning standards. Residents are being housed in every other cell during the pandemic, Kuglar said.

In October, all county employees had to submit proof of vaccination. Those who chose not to be vaccinated or disclose their vaccination status are tested weekly, Kuglar said. The county also offered places where employees can receive vaccinations.

How the virus spread so quickly and hit so many people in the facility remains a mystery to Kuglar. She could only speculate that the delta variant may have contributed to the spike or that COVID restrictions in cities have loosened. She noted that there have been outbreaks in state prisons.

"Transmission right now is the highest it has been in a long time," she said. "We were told something like this is going to happen, but you don't know when it will happen."

Workhouse residents are allowed to go to medical appointments and take part in a work-release program. The facility provides short-term custody up to a year for adults convicted of felony, misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenses.

The outbreak won't stop a $17 million facility improvement project started this summer. The sanitary and water pipes to the hundreds of cells have remained untouched. Ineffective ventilation results in unsafe moisture on floors, and cell beds haven't been replaced in 50 years. The cells don't have fire sprinklers.

The project includes two new isolation cells with separate ventilation systems.

Officials decided to continue with the project because the area was screened away from residents and staff who tested positive for COVID, Kuglar said.

With the testing period close to ending, she said she hopes there won't be any more cases.

"We have done everything we can to mitigate more spreading," she said.