A COVID-19 outbreak has rapidly spread through a Virginia jail, infecting at least 120 inmates and 20 staff members despite emergency protocols officials say have been in place since March to prevent the contagion from infiltrating the facility.
The Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover, Virginia, is the latest U.S. correctional institution to report an outbreak of coronavirus which has plagued thousands of jail and prison inmates across the country since the global pandemic started earlier this year.
On Wednesday, officials at the Pamunkey jail announced that 120 of the 380 inmates incarcerated at the lockup have tested positive for the virus in the six days since the first inmate case was detected on Sept. 3.
“It’s virtually impossible to stop outbreaks from occurring within facilities of these types," Dr. Tom Franck, director of the Chickahominy Health District in Virginia, said during a news conference at the jail. "When you have a congregated setting like this and you’ve got people sharing bathrooms and sharing space together, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to get outbreaks.”
Franck said officials have narrowed the outbreak to a specific pod at the jail, saying about 70% of the 178 inmates in that section have tested positive for the virus and that test results are pending for another dozen inmates.
While it remains unclear how the virus invaded the 127,000-square-foot facility that has 15 different housing units, James Willett, the jail's superintendent, said two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 20 and a jail contractor tested positive on Aug. 28.
He said the two jail employees and a third staff member who tested positive on Aug. 31 were immediately instructed to self-isolate. Since then, another 17 staff members have tested positive and have gone into self-isolation.
Willett said the first inmate to test positive had exhibited cold-like symptoms, but most of the other inmates were asymptomatic. He said the inmates who contracted the virus have been isolated from the jail's general population.
Roughly 200 other inmates at the jail will be tested in the coming days and that the facility has been placed on lockdown, Willett said. He added that any inmate who refuses to be tested will be placed in isolation for 10 to 14 days.
Willett said that none of the inmates who have tested positive have needed to be hospitalized and no deaths have occurred as the result of coronavirus.
The outbreak at the jail came despite stringent precautionary measures instituted at the jail in March that include medical screenings of all newly arriving inmates, who are placed in quarantine for 14 days before being moved to the general population, according to Willett. He said the jail has also canceled all non-essential visits, instituted enhanced cleaning measures of the facility and trained staff and inmates on hand-washing and proper social distancing.
Nathan Webel, deputy superintendent of the jail, told ABC affiliate station WRIC-TV in Richmond, Virginia, that all employees and inmates have been issued N95 masks and are required to wear them at all times, adding that inmates must wear masks any time they leave their bunks.
The outbreak came after Southern California officials announced they are dealing with a rapidly-spreading COVID-19 outbreak at the Santa Barbara County Jail. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said in a statement that 42 inmates have the virus and are currently isolated, including three who tested positive on Thursday.
Since the pandemic started, a total of 84 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, including a 38-year-old man who died from the virus on Aug. 11, jail spokesperson Raquel Zick told ABC News on Thursday. The jail has a total of about 450 inmates.
U.S. jails and prisons have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, prompting the early release or home confinement of thousands of inmates in an attempt to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals.
A research letter published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that between March 31 and June 6, 42,107 inmates at U.S. prisons had contracted COVID-19 and 510 had died. The research, conducted by the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, found that the COVID-19 case rate for U.S. prisoners was 5.5 times higher than the U.S. population case rate of 587 per 100 000 people.