Jails and prisons nationwide have been "hot spots" for COVID-19 outbreaks. According to data from the North Georgia Health District, the six counties covered by the district have recorded 199 positive cases in detention centers, including the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton, with the Whitfield County jail accounting for 192 of those positive cases.
The health district includes Cherokee, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties.
The law enforcement agencies in those counties — including Georgia State Patrol posts in Fannin and Whitfield counties — have recorded 93 cases among staff. Two cases required hospitalization, and none have resulted in a death.
Why has the Whitfield County jail had such a high number of cases?
"Those are due to actual community spread and are not just the result of the numbers of tests conducted," said Jennifer King, public information officer for the health district. "This is due to the level of resistance among some members of our community in following public health recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19."
As of Monday afternoon, Whitfield County had had 11,973 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, with 132 deaths and five probable deaths. Its rate of 11,439 cases per 100,000 residents ranked second among Georgia's 159 counties behind Chattahoochee. During the last two weeks, Whitfield County has seen 1,454 new cases.
Whitfield County Sheriff's Office Capt. Wesley Lynch said as of Jan. 1 the county jail "had about 40 cases of confirmed inmates who tested positive in quarantine." All of those inmates were scheduled to leave quarantine last week.
Whitfield County typically has approximately 470 to 490 inmates a day.
"No inmates or detention officers have tested positive and shown any symptoms that might require hospitalization or emergency treatment," Lynch said. "These numbers are subject to change as we receive more inmates from the public, and this is a public health issue. We'll continue to monitor, test and quarantine as the situation progresses."
Tina Smolik says her son was one of those inmates who left quarantine last week.
"He had a real high fever and tightness in his chest. He tested positive," she said. "I was really worried about him because he has asthma. He didn't have to go to the hospital. They isolated him. They isolated the whole block because so many of them tested positive. They held them 14 days."
She said that at the end of the 14 days her son was better but still had some tightness in his chest.
"I was upset that they didn't give him another test to confirm he was negative," she said.
Jessica Castillo said she has a relative who was recently in the jail who developed COVID-19 in December and she is certain he caught it in the jail.
"They quarantine them for two weeks when they come in, and don't let them (into the general population) if they have symptoms," she said. "I think it had to be an attorney or someone who works in the jail who brought it in."
She said a number of inmates were infected at that time.
She said her relative got better and did not have to be hospitalized.
"But he was really sick for a couple of weeks, couldn't breathe and couldn't move," she said.
The North Georgia Health District reports two confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the Murray County jail. Last Thursday, that jail had about 130 inmates.
Murray County Sheriff Jimmy Davenport said that jail saw an inmate test positive in the last couple of weeks. He said that inmate was not in one of the housing pods but in an intake quarantine cell.
"He exhibited symptoms, and we worked with the courts to get him a bond and get him out," Davenport said. "As far as the staff, over the last two-plus, maybe three weeks we have had several staff members with COVID."
Nationwide, jails and prisons have been a high-risk environment for COVID-19. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons reports that 6,775 federal inmates out of a total of about 136,000 have tested positive for COVID-19.
Local jail officials say they have taken steps to prevent COVID-19 from entering the jails and spreading if it does get inside.
"Unlike many of our schools, businesses and medical organizations, we’ve been successful in preventing any spread for almost 12 months now," Lynch said. "Considering that we operate a facility where populations live in close proximity, most cells contain multiple inmates, and the high rate of infection in the community, this has been quite a feat. While the spread is a concern, we have been testing regularly and we think that this, at least, has been a success."
Lynch said inmates entering the jail are screened for infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and have their temperatures taken. Those who have a temperature or other symptoms or who indicate a possible exposure to COVID-19 during intake questioning are quarantined until they can be checked by medical personnel and tested for COVID-19.
Davenport said inmates at the Murray County jail are screened before entering the jail.
"It's similar to, probably identical to, what happens when you go to a doctor's office," he said. "We take their temperature, look for symptoms, question them about possible exposure to COVID."
He said some of that screening starts when a person is arrested.
In Whitfield County, "New inmates are placed in containment cells (cell blocks designated by arrest date) and kept with those arrested at a similar time," Lynch said. "This helps us track potential outbreaks to (hopefully) only one location or inmate. These individuals are screened by medical prior to release into general population. Anyone placed on quarantine must also be tested, prior to release from quarantine."
Lynch said inmates are provided masks to wear if they want them and provided with free soap and other hygiene products.
Davenport said Murray inmates are provided masks but only required to wear them in common areas. He said staff wear masks inside the jail.
In Whitfield County, "We are currently screening officers at least once per work week," Lynch said. "While some have tested positive, almost all of the ones who have have been able to track their contact to friends and family in the community who were ill, not exposure at work. In any case, officers are also required to wear N95 or KN95 respirators when working with inmates, to prevent the spread to them. No one is allowed in the facility without a mask, and employees are required to wear masks even in work areas, if around other employees."
Davenport said the Murray County jail has installed ultraviolet light in its heating and air conditioning system.
"It's like what is used in hospitals to kill germs in the (air conditioning) system," he said.
Both men say if inmates believe they are being exposed to COVID-19 they can express their concerns to jail employees or call medical staff directly. They also say that family members with concerns can call the jail.
"Relatives call us on a fairly regular basis for any sort of issue," said Lynch. "I'm not sure why they couldn't call for this. We've had very, very few calls about this issue, however."