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Ga. jails ramp up precautions as coronavirus fears grow

Inmates will now be screened for symptoms of the virus and asked about recent international travel during booking

By J.D. Capelouto
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — As worries grow about the coronavirus outbreak, officials across metro Atlanta are taking steps to protect an especially vulnerable population: inmates in county jails.

Days after Georgia’s first two coronavirus cases were confirmed, DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox said it is “only a matter of time before the first case in DeKalb is reported.” Her office has implemented additional precautions to keep the infectious disease from spreading among inmates and jail staff.

In Fulton County, where the state’s two confirmed victims live, a jail employee who recently traveled to Asia was instructed to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days, a precaution health authorities have encouraged, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said.

Inmates, Maddox said, are especially at risk for the virus, since they live in close quarters and are sometimes transported in and out of the jail for court appearances. About 35 to 40 people are booked into the DeKalb jail every day, and many are released within 24 hours, the sheriff said at a press conference Wednesday. DeKalb’s jail currently houses about 1,800 people who are awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than two years. The facility on Memorial Drive can hold 3,800 inmates.

No potential cases of coronavirus among DeKalb jail inmates or staff have been reported. But Maddox wanted to assure friends and family members of inmates that “we are prepared and well equipped to handle any medical crisis that may arise inside this facility.”

She said other county jails in metro Atlanta are following similar guidelines as angst grows over the possible spread of coronavirus in Georgia.


CDC recommends preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • If you are concerned you might have the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider before going to a hospital or clinic. In mild cases, your doctor might give you advice on how to treat symptoms at home without seeing you in person, which would reduce the number of people you expose. But in more severe cases an urgent care center or hospital would benefit from advance warning because they can prepare for your arrival. For example, they may want you to enter a special entrance, so you don’t expose others.

When an inmate is booked into the jail, they are screened for symptoms of the virus and asked about recent international travel, said Terri Van Dorn, the health services administrator for Wellpath, which contracts with the sheriff’s office to provide medical services. The CDC recently expanded guidelines for coronavirus testing to include people with symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath coupled with travel to high-risk areas, including China, Italy, Iran and South Korea.

The Fulton jail is taking similar precautions, Flanagan said. New hand-washing stations are being installed in public areas at the main jail and the jail annexes, which can hold 3,048 inmates.

DeKalb’s jail infirmary has six isolation cells; inmates can also be transported to Grady Memorial Hospital if they need to be kept in a more serious quarantine. Staff members are keeping a “watchful eye” on inmates to see if they develop symptoms after coming into the facility, Van Dorn said.

The DeKalb County Board of Health said Tuesday that while no cases have been reported in DeKalb, officials are “ready to respond” if they surface.

“The two cases identified in Fulton County are travel-related exposures, not community spread,” DeKalb County District Health Director S. Elizabeth Ford said in a statement. “While I realize that everyone is greatly concerned about the rapid spread of the virus in several parts of the world, the actions that you would take to prevent the spread of any respiratory disease is the very same for COVID-19.”

So far, there are more than 100 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States, including people in Washington, California, Florida and New York. Many of the diagnoses have come in the last week.


©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)