On July 9, 13 inmates, two employees and two contract health care workers were confirmed positive for COVID-19 inside the Alachua County Jail, according to Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Art Forgey.
Five days earlier, on July 4, the county confirmed its first known case inside the jail walls.
“When this all began in mid-March… everything kind of shut down. Here we are in July – we’ve made it to July – before we identified our first case,” Forgey said.
Since identifying the jail’s first positive case over the holiday weekend, Forgey said 74 other inmates were quarantined. Regardless, in almost a week’s time, the case count – including prisoners, jail employees and contract health workers – has surged from eight to 17 total cases.
Forgey said the jail is taking precautions to try and stop the spread: upping temperature checks to four times a day, providing and replacing face masks and reminding inmates about social distancing and hand-washing guidelines. The Alachua County Health Department is working to conduct contact tracing among the inmates and employees who have tested positive, too.
“The jail walls provide no protection from the pandemic and you know we have not been able to identify exactly how it got in there or what the originating source was,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Alachua County Commission approved the disbursement of funds from the Federal CARES Act, allocating $800,000 toward jail maintenance, according to county legislative affairs director Mark Sexton.
One modification to the jail facility they’re contemplating is inspection of air handlers to improve air circulation.
Any improvement, however, would be made with the goal of further protecting inmates and jail employees from contracting the virus.
“We had hoped that it would spare our jail; we weren’t surprised that it didn’t,” he said.
Fortunately, Forgey said the inmate population is relatively low compared with past years. According to a census conducted Sunday, 642 inmates are currently incarcerated in Alachua County.
Working on a compounding solution, the jail director alongside Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell are negotiating the possible release of inmates.
“We don’t have the power to release them on our own, but working with the courts and the state attorney and the public defender then hopefully they can come to an agreement and somebody that may not need to be there can be released,” said Forgey.
It is not clear, however, on what basis inmates would be considered for release.
Nonetheless, agencies have not halted arrests. But, there are alternative strategies to keeping the inmate population low, Forgery said.