Flu Epidemic at Jail Just a Rumor, County Says -- While Banning Face Masks to Avoid Panic

A rumored flu epidemic centered on the Maricopa County Jail is false, officials say, and a move to prohibit jail visitors from wearing face masks is merely to avoid possible panic.

Calls were flooding in all day on Thursday about the rumor, which was apparently spread by some defense lawyers in emails, says Cari Gerchick, spokeswoman for the county and its Correctional Health Services department, which oversees jail health issues.

"There is no outbreak at the jail," she says.

See also: - News of Mexicans With Chicken Pox Overblown by Sheriff's Office

True, there is a bad strain of the flu going around that some lawyers came down with, Gerchick says. But it didn't come from the jail, where no unusual pattern of contagions has been noticed, she says. Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, looked into the rumor and deemed it false, she says.

"There is a nasty strain of flu floating around in downtown Phoenix," says a Facebook post that appears to be from a local law firm. "Three criminal defense attorneys have been hospitalized. Two are critically ill and in comas."

The post goes on to link the illness to sick inmates at the jail. Then it mentions how "lawyers have been prohibited from wearing flu masks while visiting clients at the jails..."

That part is correct, Gerchick acknowledges. The Sheriff's Office decided to ban the wearing of face masks because "there is no medical need or benefit from it, and it could cause a panic," she says.

The post claims that lawyers are staying away from the jail until the situation is resolved, and that an investigation was launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gerchick says the investigation is essentially already complete -- and there's nothing out-of-the-ordinary going on.

This episode is reminiscent of an alleged outbreak of chicken pox at the jail in 2010. Then, it was Sheriff Joe Arpaio spreading the rumor.

This time, Gerchick says, it's the lawyers who have their facts wrong.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.