LARGO — Coronavirus cases among inmates at the Pinellas County jail have risen dramatically in the past week, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Tuesday, another sign of the pandemic’s hold on a community beleaguered by the highly contagious delta variant.
Of inmates who have been tested for the virus, 90 were sick with COVID-19 as of Tuesday out of a total population of 2,741 people. It’s the worst outbreak at the jail since the pandemic started.
“It’s skyrocketed,” Gualtieri said, “but it’s stabilized in the last few days.”
No inmates have been hospitalized, he said, and most are experiencing minor symptoms. The jail, at 14400 49th St N in Largo, has three dedicated units for COVID patients — two for men and one for women. The housing units where those inmates were living when they tested positive are also under quarantine.
Jail workers are attempting to test everyone booked into the jail, but about half of them have declined testing. The jail also offers vaccines to inmates but the rate of interest is also about 50 percent.
The sheriff didn’t provide the number of cases among jail staff but said Tuesday that 70 people across the Sheriff’s Office were out sick with the virus and an additional 35 were in quarantine because of possible contact with the virus. Vaccination rates among Tampa Bay law enforcement officers and emergency medical workers are low, according to a Tampa Bay Times report Tuesday.
The high number of cases among inmates has prompted the sheriff to limit the number of people booked into the jail. He has asked police departments around the county to consider alternatives to arrest, similar to a step he took in March 2020 when the pandemic began sweeping through Florida.
If someone does arrive at the jail, they’re released on a promise they will appear in court later, unless there is a statutory reason they must be detained, Gualtieri said.
“I don’t want people in there that don’t need to get exposed to it needlessly,” he said.
Since the pandemic began in early 2020, experts have warned that jails and prisons would become hotbeds for infection. Jails, in particular, have a high turnover rate. Dozens of people are booked each day and dozens more are released on bail. Most people in county jails are awaiting trial, meaning they have not been convicted of the offense they’re accused of.
Still, it’s difficult to determine the COVID situation in county jails because few states track it, according to a University of Texas at Austin report published in March. In Florida, jails are typically run by county sheriff’s offices or public safety departments and each agency keeps and releases data differently.
Elsewhere around Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office recorded 56 cases among inmates at its two jails, spokesperson Merissa Lynn said. That’s well below the figure for Pinellas even with a similar jail population — just under 2,900 people in Hillsborough on Wednesday morning.
The jail is requiring that staff members wear masks and has provided masks to inmates who want to wear them, Lynn said. Inmates also have access to free COVID vaccines. Symptomatic inmates are housed separately from the general population.
In Pasco, which last summer saw the area’s worst jail outbreak, 46 inmates were sick with the virus at the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center, said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Hunter said. The jail has an average daily population of 1,350. The Sheriff’s Office has administered 11,564 tests and seen 560 positive cases since the start of the pandemic.
“As the population of the facility rapidly overturns, it is usually reflective of current community trends in positive tests,” Hunter said.
Since mid-June, Florida has seen a rise in cases fueled by the delta variant, according to state data. Last week brought the first decrease in weekly cases since the wave began June 18, but hospitalizations and deaths remain on the rise.
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