WINCHESTER — Twelve inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus at the regional jail earlier this month are quarantining there with none seriously ill, according to Superintendent James F. Whitley.
They are the first inmates at the jail to test positive since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March. Ten staff, all of whom were asymptomatic, have also tested positive at the jail, officially known as the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center. The first staffer tested positive on July 16. Whitley said all of the infected staff were asymptomatic and have quarantined at their homes. He said they were surprised when they tested positive because they weren't sick.
Whitley said all of the infected inmates are women and the first was diagnosed on Sept. 15 after running a fever and having persistent coughing. She was taken to the Winchester Medical Center emergency room where she tested positive for the virus and was sent back to the jail. Whitley said the woman and the other infected inmates have been placed in quarantine pods in the community corrections building. The building is for low-level offenders, many of whom are close to their release dates.
Through Friday, some 985,000 people — including about 203,000 Americans, and 3,136 Virginians — have died from the coronavirus, according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center and the Virginia Department of Health. With social distancing virtually impossible, jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable and have historically been breeding grounds for diseases. In 1918, an inmate infected with the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide including 675,000 Americans, caused a massive outbreak at the San Quentin State Prison in Northern California.
A century later, COVID caused another deadly outbreak at San Quentin. By the end of August, 26 prisoners at the 3,200-inmate prison had died from COVID-19. There have also been large outbreaks at major jails including the Cook County Jail in Chicago and Rikers Island in New York City.
Given the dangers, Northwestern staff began preparing for COVID-19 at the end January. Staff stocked up on personal protective equipment and prepared worst-case scenarios.
Whitley said the jail has enough surgical masks and gloves but there are still shortages of surgical gowns and N-95 masks, the gold standard in preventing airborne infection. Worst-case planning included quarantining infected staff at a building near the jail, but Whitley said that hasn't been necessary.
Nonetheless, all staff — about 150 corrections officers and 50 civilians — have their temperatures taken at the start of their shifts. All incoming inmates stay in a 48-person "Phase I" housing unit for new inmates for 14 days to ensure they're healthy. Before the virus, they stayed there seven to 14 days.
In another safety effort, about 110 inmates, most within 60 days of their release dates, were released early in March. Their departures decreased the average daily inmate population to about 510, about 20% below the daily average for the last five years.
However, the inmate population was up to 612 on Friday. Whitley attributes the increase to a rise in heroin use since the pandemic began. The jail serves Clarke, Fauquier and Frederick counties and Winchester.