N.C. jail begins offering COVID boosters after 1 in 3 detainees test positive
Sheriff Clarence Birkhead attributed the increase to new people entering the jail who have not been vaccinated
By Penelope Blackwell
The News & Observer
DURHAM, N.C. — The Durham County Sheriff's Office will start offering booster shots to detainees after a steep rise in COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff at the jail.
Nearly 1 in 3 people at the Durham County Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19, the jail's biggest outbreak of the pandemic.
And the numbers have slightly increased in the past week from 112 to 116 people, out of 368 detainees, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told the county commissioners Monday night.
Birkhead attributed the increase to new people entering the jail who have not been vaccinated.
"Every time someone is arrested and goes through our intake process, we certainly do the COVID screening," he told the commissioners. "And most of those individuals often have not had their first shot."
The Sheriff's Office had already been working with health care provider Wellpath to provide first and second vaccine doses.
There have been previous outbreaks at the downtown jail, and one inmate died from the virus as he was transferred to state custody. A detention officer also died from the virus after working in the jail.
The Sheriff's Office will submit an emergency funding request to the county to "enhance mitigation strategies, including more testing and cleaning supplies.
In addition to its daily cleaning. the jail also will be cleaned by the county's General Services department for "the first time ever to sanitize as much as possible," Birkhead said.
COVID precautions at the jail
The Sheriff's Office's COVID-19 precautions are listed online and include screening new detainees at intake and isolating people who are infected. Newly arrested people who do not have symptoms remain in a "classification area" for 14 days before joining a jail pod, where more screening takes place.
According to the sheriff's public information officer, a health care professional asks about an individual's vaccination status and informs them that the vaccine is available during the screening. If they would like a shot, the vaccine is brought to the facility since the department does not have the necessary storage for it there.
If detainees are still in the jail when the time comes for a second vaccine to be administered, it is given there. If they are released, they can follow up with their choice of provider for their second shot and/or booster shot.
"We have vaccines in abundance," County Health Director Rodney Jenkins said. "Durham County is a vaccine hub. ... So, if there's a desire from the sheriff and Wellpath to provide boosters, we have the vaccines to do it."
People can be jailed from anywhere from a few hours to months or longer. Most of the people in jails have not been convicted of a crime — in 2015, pretrial detainees made up 82 percent of North Carolina's jail population, NC Health News reported.
Candidate for sheriff questions safety
Maria Jocys, a retired FBI agent and candidate for Durham County sheriff, questioned safety protocols at the jail following the "alarming" increase in cases.
"Every jail inmate, regardless of the crime for which they are convicted or charged, deserves an environment that is safe and humane," Jocys wrote in a statement to The News & Observer. "What has the Sheriff been doing to keep his Durham County employees safe?"
"The Sheriff should explain the steps he has been taking to try to prevent the Durham Co. Detention Facility from becoming a COVID super-spreader jail. He should also acknowledge what state records spotlight," she added.
State records show that 23 of the department's roughly 550 employees currently test positive for COVID-19. But according to Birkhead, 45 total staffers have been infected with the virus since Dec. 27.
"They were all vaccinated and some of them had received their booster as well, so their recovery time has been shortened," he said.
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