COVID-19 outbreak at Tenn. jail triggers return to coronavirus protocols
The sheriff said the first cases appeared among seven members of a jail work crew last week
By Ben Benton
Chattanooga Times Free Press
WINCHESTER, Tenn. — At least 20 inmates at the Franklin County Jail in Winchester, Tennessee, have confirmed COVID-19 infections, an outbreak of cases that have almost tripled in three days.
"We're treating them, and they're quarantined," Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said Monday.
Fuller said all previous protocols for the coronavirus are back in place.
"There have been no serious symptoms," he said, and no inmates have required hospitalization.
Fuller said the first cases appeared among seven members of a jail work crew Thursday. He said the work crew performs outside work like mowing and trimming brush.
Since then, jail inmates were tested over the weekend and the case count grew to 20, the sheriff said.
Sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. Chris Guess said work crew activity has been suspended until further notice, and anyone having business with the sheriff's office is asked to do so by phone or other electronic means.
"If you have a need to come to the sheriff's office, please contact Franklin County communications with your complaint and a deputy can meet you in the parking lot to help you," Guess said in a statement to the community. "If you need law enforcement at your residence or business, you may still call, and a deputy will respond."
The sheriff's office will have coronavirus measures in place "until further notice and it is deemed safe to conduct business as usual," Guess said.
Fuller said some jailers came down with the virus in January and have since recovered, but these are the first cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the jail.
Vaccinations are not required of sheriff's office staff, and 29 of about 120 sheriff's office employees have been fully vaccinated, Fuller said. Fuller got his vaccination as soon as he was eligible, he said.
As of Saturday, the county case count stands at 5,299 total cases, 92 deaths and 111 hospitalizations, state records show.
A June review by the Times Free Press of regional Tennessee Department of Health vaccination data showed Franklin County — population 41,725 — with just less than 28% of the population having received two doses. The highest rate in the region at the time was in Meigs County at 42% and the lowest rate was Grundy County at 20%, records showed.
Fuller hadn't heard of any concerns about inmate cases being the delta variant of the virus, he said Monday.
As officials recommit to pandemic protocols, Fuller said the jail still has plenty of personal protective equipment for staff and inmates.
At the beginning of the pandemic, jails across the region reduced inmate populations to limit the spread of the coronavirus. As vaccinations began and cases declined, courts and other law enforcement processes have begun to return to prepandemic modes of operation.
The problem for Franklin County was its jail was overcrowded to begin with and efforts to reduce the population didn't help as much as jails with fewer longstanding space problems. Even though the number of inmates was reduced from 226 to 147 in April 2020, officials said the 1998-era facility was still consistently over its official capacity of 114.
A multimillion-dollar expansion now in its final stages will boost capacity to more than 300, according to officials.
Next: Vaccines required when Pa. prison work release resumes
(c)2021 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)