Sheriff: COVID-19 breakout at jail was ‘a matter of time’

156 inmates, eight corrections deputies positive with virus

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook said the recent outbreak of COVID-19 at the county jail was not only expected, but inevitable.

After announcing 18 positive cases of the deadly virus a week earlier, Cook said a new round of tests have turned up 156 infected inmates and eight detention deputies.

Counting between “60 and 70” inmates who’ve refused testing, nearly half of the jail population now is in isolation.

“As of [Monday] morning, we have 156 positive COVID-19 cases in the Clay County Jail among our population. This is among a population of 472 inmates. We have eight detention deputies that have tested positive, as well. We have 104 total deputies that work for us [in the jail],” Cook said.

“This is an area where people eat, sleep, live 24/7, so really was only a matter of time before an employee or an inmate brought COVID-19 into the facility. Now that it’s here, we’re doing everything we can to keep everybody safe.”

The agency has been diligent working to prevent the coronavirus since Clay County reported its first case in March, Cook said. Those efforts will be increased, Florida Department of Health-Clay County Director Heather Huffman said.

“We continue to maintain contact with the new sheriff, Michelle Cook, along with the jail administration,” Huffman said. “That is a congregate setting so there’s going to have a higher risk association because they live, eat, sleep, everything there. We’ve done some recommendation guidance out of the CDC in order to help mitigate the strategy, mitigate the process that’s happening right now. How do we cohort the positives together? How do we cohort the people who are symptomatic together? And how do we take those that are negative, or are asymptomatic in other dormitories?

“We look at things like enhanced cleaning, social distancing, making sure the inmates have the use of masks is they’d like to or limiting their movement inside the jail.

“We’ve sent in a three-person investigation team to do interviews with all those positives cases and we’ll get the contact exposures. We’ve also sent in a two-man team [on Monday] to do additional testing. We’re going to start on a rotation of every two weeks testing in the jail setting so we can identify those individuals that are positive and immediately isolate them.”

None of the infected are “in severe medical distress,” Cook said.

Inmates are divided among eight dormitory pods, Director of Detention Chris Coldiron said. Once an inmate tests positive or shows signs of the virus, they are removed from general population and placed with other inmates with similar symptoms.

“We have an initial isolation period of seven days, and we’ve now extended that to 14 days,” Coldiron said.

Inmates are screened during the booking process, Cook said. Once behind bars, they have extra cleaning supplies and masks made available.

But it’s impossible to completely prevent COVID-19 in an environment like a jail, Cook said.

“For our employees, we require them to wear masks and appropriate PPE [personal protection equipment],” she said. “We have provided addition hand sanitizer to all of our employees, and we check our employees’ temperatures at the beginning of each shift before the come into the facility.

“For those inmates who are in our custody and care, they are screened, they are brought in and immediately isolated and quarantined, depending on if they had any symptoms or if they have a fever. We continually monitor the inmates for symptoms. We provide masks to the inmates. We provide additional cleaning items to our inmates to clean their areas. Again, they have access to medical personnel 24/7.”

Movement is limited throughout the jail, Coldiron said.

Cook said other measures have been implemented to control the virus.

“All of our inmate program has been suspended. We have limited our inmate work crews. We isolate and/or quarantine the inmates that have tested positive, who refuse testing or show any sign of symptoms,” she said. “We have had these preventative measures in place and we will continue to keep these measures in place and we will be doing additional testing in two weeks.”

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