Pasco deputies entered jail with coronavirus, disobeyed mask rules, reports show

Since the pandemic began, at least 287 inmates in the Pasco County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, at least 287 inmates in the Pasco County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, at least 287 inmates in the Pasco County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19.
Published May 20, 2021

Pasco County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Schaeffer showed up to work at the county jail on Sept. 18 despite feeling under the weather.

Schaeffer, who worked as a bailiff for the agency since 2004, had recently returned from a two-week-long vacation. His entire family fell ill, and he had taken a COVID-19 test the day before returning to work.

“I don’t think it would be a good idea to call in sick after being on vacation for 18 days,” Schaeffer said at the time, according to internal investigation documents.

A month later, Schaeffer worked a 12-hour shift despite still feeling unwell and having a temperature of more than 100 degrees. The day after his shift, he tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

The deputy would be suspended for five days without pay when the investigation revealed he exposed others to the highly contagious coronavirus. But he wasn’t the only Sheriff’s Office employee to expose their co-workers, inmates and others throughout the pandemic.

“This is an issue that the Sheriff’s Office takes very seriously,” Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said in an email. “Protecting the health of staff, those incarcerated, and others is an important component of serving our community, which is our primary mission.”

Schaeffer was one of several deputies who failed to follow the guidelines at the jail by not wearing masks, wearing the wrong masks or coming in sick, all while infections rose among the inmate population. Since the pandemic began, at least 287 inmates in the Pasco County Jail have tested positive for the virus, Hunter said. Out of nearly 1,450 inmates, 480 asked to be vaccinated, according to a jail survey conducted when Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded eligibility to all Floridians.

Deputy Christopher Eason worked at the jail’s medical isolation unit for 17 shifts between May and June without wearing his assigned N-95 mask, reports show. Instead he wore a KN-95 mask from the jail nurse’s station. Only N-95 masks have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Two deputies, Hector Perez and Roland Bennett, failed to make sure inmates were wearing masks when they were moving through populated areas of the jail in July, according to internal affairs documents.

Deputy James Moody also failed to wear his assigned N-95 properly in September, instead wearing it below his neck with a gaiter on, reports said.

Sergeant Thomas Hand was in the quarantine unit of the jail for just under an hour without wearing any mask in December, despite a sign on the door which said wearing an N95 mask was mandatory.

Hand also didn’t check in with a deputy under his command who had been out sick from work for two days, reports said. That deputy returned to work when their coronavirus test results were pending. They would test positive after two days back on the job, reports show.

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“Everything seems to be a symptom of COVID and I wasn’t about to push the COVID leave over a cold and a cough,” Hand said in an email, according to the internal affairs report.

When reached by telephone, Hand declined to comment. The Pasco County deputies did not return calls from a Tampa Bay Times reporter this week, except for Hand, who declined to comment.

All the deputies who violated COVID-19 policies received letters of reprimand or were suspended without pay, documents show.

Memos sent to Sheriff’s Office employees over the course of the pandemic detailed isolation guidelines based on the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidance at the time. Coronavirus-related exposure and quarantine has not counted against an employee’s personal sick leave or vacation time, according to Hunter, but that policy will end in June.

Before the pandemic, the Sheriff’s Office already had a rule that prohibited employees from knowingly exposing others to a communicable disease.

Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University and the director of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital, said nearly any disease has higher prevalence within jails and prison populations.

The majority of incarcerated people have addiction problems, Rich said, which can result in chronic health issues and other diseases.

“Everything that you can do in corrections is masks and distancing and quarantining,” Rich said. “Testing can help but probably not nearly as much as just vaccinating everybody.”

Staff members are the most likely to spread a contagious virus like COVID-19 in jails, Rich said. Quarantining inmates poses its own problems, especially in jails and prisons that are already over capacity. Deputies are not required to be vaccinated and the Sheriff’s Office does not track which employees have received one.

Madeline Guth, a policy analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that correctional facilities aren’t as closed off as many people think they are. Staff come in and out. Inmates are admitted and released.

“We already know that the policies in prisons and jails vary so wildly. That complicates the data so much,” Guth said.

When Deputy Schaeffer went to work on Sept. 18, he told a sergeant that he had gotten a coronavirus test the day before and that his family was sick, reports said.

Doctors recommended that he quarantine for at least two to three days until he got his results back, according to the internal investigation. Schaeffer said his rapid test was negative but his doctor told him to wait for the longer, more accurate result to come back. The investigation didn’t clarify the result of the second test.

But on Oct. 12, Schaeffer had a fever and experienced labored breathing while on duty. He thought he was suffering from a flare up of a chronic disease he had, he told investigators. A deputy working alongside him said he should contact the sergeant. He did not.

When asked why he didn’t tell a supervisor that he didn’t feel well in the internal investigation, Schaeffer said: “I have been in the break room when sergeants are talking about people who complain about not feeling well. They talk a lot of crap about them and I was not going to put myself in that position for them to talk crap about me.”