One hundred inmates at the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center have tested positive for coronavirus over the past 2½ weeks, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.
That marks the largest outbreak among jails in the Tampa Bay area since the pandemic began, according to data compiled by the Tampa Bay Times. But that agency has also tested hundreds more inmates than its counterparts in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The widespread testing is part of the jail’s strategy to control the spread of the virus by helping officials catch inmates who are sick but aren’t showing symptoms, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Hunter.
“We’re testing probably a lot more people than others, just out of an abundance of caution to mitigate the spread as best we can,” she said.
Since the coronavirus appeared in Florida at the beginning of March, experts have warned jails and prisons could become hotbeds for infection. The Sheriff’s Offices in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough said they’ve taken steps to protect their county jails and stop COVID-19 from spreading inside.
But as cases skyrocket in Florida and beyond, experts say that increases the chances that the pandemic will breach local jails, where it could quickly spread.
“It sucks,” said Daniel Jooris, a 43-year-old Pinellas inmate whose housing pod was quarantined after someone within it tested positive. “You’re like, ‘When are you gonna get it?’ It’s just a matter of time now.”
It’s already difficult to control infectious diseases in institutionalized settings, where people live in close quarters with communal living areas.
But jails, which generally hold people awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year, pose a heightened threat to those inside and outside because of high turnover. Many arrestees are booked in and released within 24 hours, either after posting bail or with a promise to appear in court later.
“When you’ve got that kind of churn, it means you’re bringing into the facility all the infections that people in the community have,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs who specializes in jails and prisons.
Tampa Bay’s jails say they have heeded recommendations to reduce their populations, screen new inmates for symptoms and travel history and suspend in-person visits.
Still, the coronavirus made it inside.
Pasco’s first COVID-positive inmate was tested on June 22, Hunter said. Unlike the Sheriff’s Offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough, Pasco sheriff’s officials did not publicly announce the outbreak inside its jail.
Jail officials shared information of positive cases with the affected inmates, their families and the Florida Department of Health, Hunter said, but not with the public “out of respect for personal privacy.”
They’ve since tested 832 inmates — a number that dwarfs the 52 tested in Pinellas and Hillsborough, which has tested at least 224 inmates. Hunter attributed Pasco’s high number to the fact that, once an inmate tests positive or starts showing symptoms, that inmate’s entire housing unit is tested. The jail has an average daily population of 1,350.
The jail is also testing new inmates after they’ve gone through a 3-day isolation period. Hunter said it’s impossible to know how the virus entered the jail because of the volume of people who go through it.
But she acknowledged that three days may not be long enough. The incubation period for coronavirus is between two to 14 days.
“Three days may not be enough to catch everybody,” she said, adding that it’s the best the jail can do with limited space and rules around which inmates can be housed together.
Hillsborough sheriff’s spokeswoman Merissa Lynn said its jails, which as of last week had a population of about 2,400 inmates, are holding new inmates for much longer: 30 days. That county’s jails have had a dozen positive cases since the agency announced its first inmate tested positive in mid-April. At least nine of them were caught when inmates were first booked into jail.
Pinellas is placing new inmates in quarantine for 14 days, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. His agency announced on June 11 an outbreak of five inmates and 13 staffers.
Those numbers grew to 13 inmates and 28 employees in the jail as of Tuesday, Gualtieri said, although some inmates from the first rash of cases have recovered or been released. One of the positive inmates had severe enough symptoms to be hospitalized outside of the jail, Gualtieri said. The inmate’s case was more severe because he had cancer, the sheriff said.
Pinellas has tested 52 inmates so far. Jail doctors decide which inmates meet the criteria to be tested, the sheriff said. When asked about how the jail was detecting asymptomatic cases, Gualtieri said mass testing isn’t available for inmates. Through the pandemic, the Pinellas jail’s population has hovered at about 2,100 inmates.
“I think we’ve done extremely well,” he said, “to only have 13 inmates out of the thousands that are in there test positive.”
A handful of inmates inside the sheriff’s jail disagree, and their accounts give a sobering look at what it’s like to be incarcerated during a pandemic.
Allen McCartney, 45, has been worried from the beginning that coronavirus would make it into the jail, if it hadn’t already. McCartney said he and many inmates fell ill in December and January with what he now believes were COVID-19 symptoms. Gualtieri said he didn’t know anything about a disease outbreak in that timeframe.
McCartney was one of several inmate workers who said they requested face masks but were denied. The jail issued masks to all inmates only after the first positive case cropped up.
They now have surgical masks, but the expectation is that they reuse them, the inmates said. Jooris, the inmate in the quarantined dorm, said he gets a new one about once a week. Inmate workers get them every three to four days, McCartney said, but only if they complain.
“They get nasty,” he said of the masks.
The sheriff said the agency has plenty of masks and that he reminded his jail staff to give inmates new ones whenever they ask.
Several inmates reported that official information was hard to come by, making it difficult to know how at risk they might be, and what the jail is doing to handle it.
“Their job is care, custody and control,” Jooris said, “and this proves they lost all that.”
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