Twenty inmates and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Orange County Detention Center as of Monday, raising concerns about overall pandemic control in detention centers.
“It is difficult in the best of situations to prevent COVID in congregate living situations,” Alicia Stemper, the director of public information and special services for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, said in an email.
Everyone who had contact with inmates and tested positive has received a PCR test, Stemper wrote. The detention center is working closely with the Orange County Health Department and Southern Health Partners to manage the outbreak, according to a county press release.
“No matter how careful you are, there is always the possibility there will be the introduction of a highly contagious disease in a congregant living situation,” Michael DeFranco, head of the communicable disease team at the Orange County Health Department (OCHD), said in an email.
A strike team — comprised of OCHD staff, emergency services and representatives from UNC and Duke hospitals — makes frequent trips to the detention center and other congregate living facilities to conduct evaluations and provide feedback and guidance.
“We will continue to work closely with all congregant living facilities as we have done throughout the pandemic,” DeFranco said.
For the current outbreak at the detention center, DeFranco said the OCHD epidemiological team has maintained frequent contact with the detention center to provide PPE, tracing, testing and suggestions for improvements in facility health protocols.
“The detention center and OHCD work together to produce the best outcomes,” DeFranco wrote.
According to the county's press release, the detention center's protocol for a positive test is to remove that person from the general population of the facility, and place them in an area that has high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems installed.
The outbreak appears to have started with an inmate who entered the facility symptom-free and tested negative, but then later tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting symptoms, the press release said.
DeFranco said the OCHD has sought guidance from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services for advice about the outbreak, as they have dealt with numerous congregate living situations throughout the pandemic.
“We always have more to learn,” he wrote.
All of the detention officers who work with inmates who've tested positive for COVID-19 change their personal protective equipment upon entering different areas of the facility to ensure that cross-contamination does not occur, per the press release.
The facility also reports that they have enhanced cleaning procedures since March 2020, the county said in a press release.
Anyone entering the detention center is required to be isolated for seven days in a negative pressure cell, Stemper said.
During this period, if someone receives a positive test result, the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department works to find them a different, safe place in the community to undergo proper isolation. If they test negative and show no symptoms after seven days, they can be readmitted into the general population.
The most notable COVID-related protocol the detention center has employed limiting the number of people entering the facility. Stemper said only 60 people were in custody at the detention center on Oct. 4, 2020.
“As time went on, the immediate crisis of the pandemic morphed into a more chronic situation,” Stemper said in an email.
She noted that as vaccines and rapid tests became more readily available, the courts started ordering more people to enter the facility. On Oct. 4, 2021, 109 people were in custody. These people are admitted into the facility regardless of vaccination status.
The health department does offer the Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer vaccines to inmates monthly. Since February of 2021, the health department has vaccinated 76 detainees, Stemper said in an email. However, Stemper said the exact percentage of incarcerated people who are vaccinated cannot be calculated because the population of the facility changes daily.
“Unfortunately, we are hearing from jail professionals across the state that numbers of COVID cases within detention facilities are surging," Jamison Sykes, chief deputy for the Orange County Sheriff said in a press release. "Despite our best efforts, we are also experiencing this increase in our facility.”
In North Carolina detention centers, there are 96 active COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 18, with a .3 percent positive rate according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Additionally, the Department of Public Safety has reported over 19,000 detainees were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 17.
“We are working with the Orange County Health Department and will follow their guidance as we manage this outbreak,” Stemper said in an email.
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