Super-virus goes to jail

| December 27, 2007
A reliable source who spoke to the Independent on condition of anonymity reports Flathead County jailers released a prisoner from custody this month after they discovered the inmate had a contagious “super-virus” known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan acknowledges that one female inmate at the jail had been diagnosed with MRSA and held in quarantine.

Likewise, Flathead County Jail Commander Kathy Frame says “we have had some MRSA in the jail.” But she denies that any prisoners had been released specifically because they had contracted the virus.

Frame notes the possibility, however, that an inmate infected with the virus might have been released for other reasons. “The release may not have had anything to do with health issues, so I don’t have any information for you. If there was MRSA, that was coincidental to their arrest and charging,” she told the Independent.

A source close to the situation says the prisoner freed by jailers was a man charged with a misdemeanor offense who jailers referred to the Flathead County Public Health Department for treatment.

Flathead County public health officer Joe Russell declined to reveal whether his department had seen anyone from the jail with MRSA, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Probability Act, a law passed in 1996
that places stringent rules against releasing private health information.

Although Russell declined to discuss specific case histories, he willingly explained the nature of the disease.

“To say it’s untreatable is inaccurate, but it’s very difficult to treat,” he says. “Staph is a bacteria that…can get systemic and cause a lot of damage. Once it gets systemic it’s very difficult to work with.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, MRSA can start off as sores and abscesses on the skin. But once the infection becomes systemic, it can damage organs and joints, and in extreme cases lead to death.

“From a public health perspective, we are very watchful of something like that,” Russell says.

But the best way to fight the “super-virus” MRSA is very low tech.

 “Many of the diseases we catch, our hands become the transmission agent,” Russell says. “MRSA may be anti-biotic resistant, but it’s not soap resistant. Wash your hands.”

Comments (3)

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I think the previous posts miss the point. The release of a prisoner from custody is a serious issue, which has the potential to have a deleterious effect upon society and the story, despite any minor factual errors, is truly investigative. Mr. Peters should be commended for his diligence in reporting such a truly important issue and deserves praise for bringing the alleged actions of the Flathead County authorities to the forefront.

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Posted by Omar J. on 01/30/2008 at 9:11 PM

Lawrence, it should be a red flag when any story begins with a "reliable source" making allegations on the condition of anonymity. Poor journalism almost always follows.

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Posted by anonymous on 12/30/2007 at 1:52 PM

Reporter Paul Peters states several times, and repeats without correction, that MRSA is a "virus" when in fact it is a bacteria. He even missed the import of the contradictory statement by a public health officer. Since Peters seems to feel it's legitimate to get medical information from jailers, I wonder if he'd seek out a nurse for 'factual' statements on corrections policy. Actually, maybe that's not such a bad idea.

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Posted by Lawrence on 12/29/2007 at 12:36 AM
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