This column was originally posted on Jeff Keller's blog, Jail Medicine.
When COVID-19 burst onto the scene several months ago, the jail administrators and the medical teams in my jails initiated several common-sense practices to reduce the possibility of COVID infiltrating the jails.
These measures included screening and quarantining new inmates before allowing them into the dorms, screening jail employees daily, doing lots of COVID tests and, perhaps most importantly, having deputies wear masks at work.
The good news is that, so far, there have been no cases of COVID-19 in any of my jails (knock on wood). However, there seems to be growing evidence of “COVID fatigue” in my community.
When I go out in public, I am one of the very few still wearing a mask. And this is, unfortunately, spilling over to the correctional facilities. I did a clinic at one of my smaller jails this week and was surprised and dismayed to see that the deputies were no longer wearing masks. In the meantime, community COVID cases are climbing, so the risk of transmitting COVID to the jail is actually greater than it was, say, a month ago.
Risks to inmates
What remains constant is that the greatest risk to the jail inmates is not new inmates with COVID, but deputies or other jail employees catching COVID in the community and bringing it to the jail with them before they know they have it. One of those jail personnel is me! I have a responsibility myself not to be a potential COVID vector. That means wearing a mask at the jail but it also means I have a responsibility to practice COVID safety in the community.
Think of it this way: Of the next 1,000 people I meet in my community (most of whom I don’t even know), at least one of them is statistically likely to have COVID. The best way to prevent transmission from that person to me is for that person to be wearing a mask. This is unlikely where I live, though.
The next best way to prevent transmission from that person to me is for me to wear a mask, practice social distancing and clean my hands often. These actions will lessen the likelihood that I myself catch COVID and transmit it myself into the jail. My job is to keep the inmates in my jails healthy. In the time of COVID, my actions when I am not at work impact my primary goal of keeping inmates healthy. If I am not practicing COVID safety in the community, I am abrogating my duty just as assuredly as if I failed to provide necessary medical care.
Leading by example
I also have a powerful leadership role whether I want it or not. If a jail deputy sees me at the store without a mask, that will reinforce their perception that “this COVID thing is not that big of a deal.” Same thing with many of my friends who get their medical information about masks from political sources. They know that I am a physician, so when they see me wear a mask, it reinforces the concept that wearing a mask in public is an important medical practice.
So, keep yourself safe. Keep your inmates safe. Exercise a positive leadership role in your community through leading by example! Do all of these by practicing COVID safety at work and in the community.
As always, what I have written here is my opinion, based on my training, experience and research. I could be wrong! If you think I am wrong, please say why in comments.
A version of this post was previously published in CorrDocs, the Journal of the American College of Correctional Physicians.