Rural Ala. jails still in early stages of coronavirus preparation
Sheriffs said they're monitoring the situation and taking preliminary precautions, but that they still remain largely in wait-and-see mode
By Connor Sheets
Alabama Media Group
ETOWAH COUNTY, Ala. — When Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton and his assistant chief of corrections Mark Bullock entered a women’s cellblock in the county’s jail in downtown Gadsden Friday afternoon, they didn’t wear masks, gloves or other personal protective equipment.
Their decision not to take such steps to protect themselves from disease while no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus have been reported so far inside Alabama’s county jails is in keeping with the current approaches in jails in other small cities and towns across the state, according to interviews with sheriffs about their preparations for the disease.
In a time when President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency and Alabama is beginning to see its first confirmed COVID-19 cases, rural sheriffs say that they are closely monitoring the situation and taking preliminary precautions, but that they still remain largely in wait-and-see mode.
"Right now it's blue sky because we really don't know what to anticipate," Wally Olson, sheriff of Dale County in southeast Alabama, said Friday.
Sheriffs are formulating and beginning to roll out plans for how to keep their staff and other inmates healthy if cases of coronavirus are identified within the walls of their jails. Some sheriff’s offices’ plans are more robust than others.
For instance, Cherokee County Sheriff Jeff Shaver said Friday that he had already set up an isolation unit in his jail in northeast Alabama.
"We have emptied one unit in our jail to prepare for if we have to isolate anyone. We have a backup plan in case we have a large number of people who test positive," Jeff Shaver said Friday.
"Right now we're screening everyone who comes into the jail, including employees."
Etowah County's precautionary measures begin at intake, when all new inmates are required to fill out a symptoms questionnaire to determine if they are potentially infected by COVID-19.
“If they have a [potentially] positive result from a particular average of ‘yes’ answers to these symptoms, then we do have an isolation area where we can put someone until the diagnosis is confirmed and they can get treatment,” Horton said.
On Saturday, Keith Peek, the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office’s chief of corrections, sent out an email announcing new restrictions at the county’s jail. For at least the next 30 days, “all non-essential personnel” are barred from entering the facility other than for “some legal visits,” the email said. All “outside inmate work crews will be suspended,” all “essential inmate workers” will undergo medical checks before beginning work each day and all jail staff will have their temperature checked when they enter the facility.
Sheriffs are also ramping up sanitation efforts and beginning to distribute low-grade protective gear and preventative items to their deputies and correctional staff.
Olson said that cleanliness is his top concern in Dale County.
"We do have some masks, but the number one thing is the hand sanitizer, the washing your hands, keeping everything Cloroxed, wiping everything down," he said. "The number one thing for us right now is just making sure to keep everything clean."
Shaver is also requiring that his employees be vigilant about cleanliness, in keeping with what he said were already standard practices in the Cherokee County Jail.
"We clean our jail every day," he said. "We distributed hand sanitizer to all of our people and typically we wear gloves when we deal with people because we don’t want to get blood and fluids on us."
And sheriffs are assessing how to update their action plans and equipment to keep deputies safe and healthy out on the streets.
Horton said he has worked with the Etowah County Emergency Management Agency to provide his employees both in the field and in the jail with kits that include basic protective items.
"The EMA helped us provide each patrol deputy and unit with a kit with mask and hand sanitizer and those kinds of things to protect us," he said. "And we're making sure we keep as much distance as we can, that kind of stuff."
Olson said that though his deputies will "still have to respond to calls in the field," he is waiting on recommendations from state officials and analyzing what other states like California and Florida have done to help determine what new protocols his employees should follow while out in the community.
“If [deputies] go out and take a complaint from someone who’s affected by the virus, then they’re susceptible to it,” he said. “So we’re going to have to look at how we do that too, eventually, if it does spread like they’re predicting.”
Shaver said he looks at the current outbreak from a historical perspective:
“This could go on for several months, and while there have been a lot of deaths, it’s similar to, like, a flu pandemic. It’s one of those things that go on in the world sometimes.”
©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham