LARGO — The coronavirus outbreak that hit the Pinellas County jail this week has quickly grown into a “significant issue,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday.
In the past 24 hours, 13 staffers and five inmates have tested positive, the sheriff said. The new cases come days after the agency announced earlier this week that six jail employees had tested positive and several inmates were placed in isolation.
“We now, unfortunately, have a big problem at the jail,” Gualtieri told the Pinellas County Commission during Thursday’s meeting. “We’re going to have to make significant changes over there."
The sheriff’s announcement came the same week the Tampa Bay Times reported that demonstrators in ongoing protests against racism and police brutality were being held in the jail overnight without the option to post bail. The sheriff sought permission from the Pinellas-Pasco chief judge to do so, citing protesters’ attacks on law enforcement.
But, aside from a few people police said were caught with weapons, the protests have remained largely peaceful, and many demonstrators have disputed they were involved in any violence.
Gualtieri said Thursday there is no evidence to show the virus is connected to the jailed protesters. Rather, his guess is that a staff member brought the virus into the facility. The first cases were discovered among inmate records specialists, who don’t have contact with inmates but who do interact with jail staff.
The inmate cases have occurred largely among trustees — or inmates who work in the jail on jobs such as preparing and delivering food — who also have contact with jail staff. They reside in C barracks, which has been locked down, the sheriff said. The results of 14 tests for COVID-19 are pending.
Most of the positive test results were from jail staffers, he said, and entire squads of corrections deputies have been sent home to enter quarantine.
To slow the spread of the virus, Gualtieri said that on Thursday he told the county’s police chiefs that he may have to limit jail bookings, except for felony offenders. The Sheriff’s Office also outlined these steps:
• Law enforcement agencies were asked not to arrest anyone on a misdemeanor warrant except in domestic violence cases or violations of a protective injunction case.
• No inmates will be taken to the Pinellas County Justice Center next door. All court appearances will be video appearances.
• Judges were asked to avoid taking defendants into custody at this time. But if that is unavoidable, they will be driven to the jail wearing a mask.
• No inmates will be sent to any Florida Department of Corrections’ facilities.
• County police agencies were asked to refer all misdemeanor charges to the State Attorney’s Office. Issuing notices to appear was also encouraged.
• All staff members will be asked to wear a cloth or surgical mask. N95 masks should be worn in the presence around inmates suspected of contracting the infection.
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• All inmates will be issued masks to be worn when leaving their barracks or while in contact with staff.
The sheriff stressed that he doesn’t want to bring more people into the jail at 14400 49th St. N and risk that they’ll also become infected.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the country, civil rights advocates and public health experts have warned that jails and prisons are potential hotbeds for the virus because of the number of people living in a confined setting. Jails are particularly risky because of turnover. Dozens of inmates are booked in and released every day, which could spread the virus both inside and outside the county jail.
That warning came true for several jails and prisons across the state. So far, 18 inmates in the Florida prison system have died from the virus, according to state data.
In March, the Pinellas jail shut down jail visitation and implemented a screening process. Inmates with symptoms were sent to the medical wing. Those who didn’t show symptoms were put in quarantine for 14 days before being moved to the general population.
The jail population was also slashed by about 500 inmates following a concerted effort across the legal system to free defendants and book fewer people. Throughout the pandemic, the jail population has hovered at around 2,100 people, according to Sheriff’s Office data, down from the previous average of about 3,000 on any given day. Before this week, the only known case in the jail was a deputy who fell ill in early April.
One infection control measure the jail didn’t take was requiring inmates and staff to wear masks. Only inmates showing symptoms were provided one, and jail deputies had the option to wear one “whenever they deem it’s appropriate,” a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman previously told the Times.
Gualtieri said the jail received a shipment of surgical masks last week that will be distributed to inmates. They’ll be required to wear one if they leave their housing area.
The jail will also continue testing inmates who are symptomatic or otherwise qualify for testing, while employees will get tested through their doctors or at community test sites. Although people with the virus don’t always exhibit symptoms, the sheriff said he doesn’t have enough test kits to test all inmates.
“We’ve really just got to lock it down," the sheriff said, "and, as they say, flatten the curve.”
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