In an updated release Thursday evening, Escambia County Corrections is now reporting more than 5 dozen recently confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the county jail. Also, Escambia county road crew operations have been suspended after its first reported case.
Elsewhere, there’s also an outbreak of more than three dozen coronavirus cases at the Walton County Jail , with some of those cases involving Escambia inmates.
William Powell, who goes by Rich, is chief of corrections for Escambia County.
“We continue to test the inmate population as an area becomes infected or symptomatic,” said Powell. “Right now, we have very little symptoms. It’s more of a result of testing that we have expanded.
Powell has a fairly large corrections staff of 575 members. On Thursday, he reported that abour 4% of them are positive and remaining at home until they test negative.
“We’re trying to contain it, but as you can understand, we’re a microcosm of the community,” he said. “And as the infection in the community spreads, we’re doing everything we can to limit the access or limit the spread within the confinement.”
Amid close quarters, Powell explained that the virus spread rapidly in one section of the jail. As a result, corrections staff were able to isolate that infected area by halting movement in and out of the area and allowing medical staff to manage it right there.
“I would say 95/99 percent of our inmates are asymptomatic, that have tested positive,” said Powell. “Many of them in a controlled area, now are wanting to go back to their routine day. But, until we get clearance and know that there’s no more contagion in there, then they’ll remain in the position they’re at.”
Escambia County is building a new jail that’s expected to be completed by November and open for inmates by early next year. For now, the current jail is around capacity with about 900 inmates. To minimize overcrowding, about 170 Escambia County inmates are being housed in Walton County.
“We have received our first round of tests and it’s the viral test. It came back, and of those inmates that we tested, 39 of them tested positive,” said Cory Godwin, director of jail operations in Walton County. Eighteen of the positive COVID-19 tests in his facility are from Escambia.
“We initiated these tests on July 2 after a single inmate manifested a temperature that was above our accepted CDC guidelines of 100.4,” stated Godwin. “There were probably some pre-existing conditions that contributed, but that’s what prompted the testing and temperature monitoring of inmates throughout the facility.”
Like in Escambia, the Walton County corrections staff has been able to isolate the coronavirus outbreak to two pods of their housing unit. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of those inmates who’ve tested positive are asymptomatic.
Godwin acknowledged he was impressed that it took as long as it did for a COVID-19 outbreak in the Walton County Jail and he feels fortunate that there’s been time to prepare for this moment.
“Since the onset of the pandemic back in as early as March, we’ve been taking every precaution primarily related to isolation, containment, an incredible amount of excess effort in cleaning and sanitation throughout the facility and daily monitoring of temperatures of most staff and inmates, and with a strategic focus on new intakes as they come in,” Powell explained.
Similar measures, including the distribution and wearing of masks by inmates, are in place at the Escambia County Jail and other local facilities. It also helped that State Attorney Bill Eddin’s office has taken steps to reduce the overall inmate population in the four counties of the First Judicial Circuit by allowing some to be released on their own recognizance, reduced bonds or time-served.
So far, the jails in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties have experienced little impact from COVID-19. Currently, the Santa Rosa County Jail has just two individuals who’ve tested positive for virus. The Okaloosa County Jail has had no reports of cases among inmates or staff.
In the Escambia and Walton county jails, where the coronavirus outbreak is significant, their focus is on curtailing the spread and keeping inmates and their families informed.
“We’ve created a direct line so families can call in and ask questions, though there are some HPPA laws regarding privacy,” said Godwin. “But, we want to make sure we’re very transparent and open with their legitimate concerns about the health of their loved ones.”
“To the individuals who have loved ones inside, just know that we’re doing everything we can to minimize the impact and our medical staff is a continuous state of observation and assessment,” added Powell, Escambia County’s Corrections Chief.
“So, at the first sign of any illnesses that are being born from this, they will be on it and the appropriate medical care will be given.”
At this point, inmate visitation is generally limited to phone and video calls. However, individuals with questions about inmates can call the Escambia County Jail at 850-436-9650.
Walton County has set up a direct line for inmate families. That number is 850-951-7001.