Jail COVID outbreak spikes: 107 inmates test positive; jail locked down for 2 days

A state inspection found “significant safety concerns” over staffing shortages at the Mecklenburg County Jail in uptown Charlotte, including some driven by COVID-19 outbreaks that have sickened some 81 workers and more than a fourth of inmates. (Charlotte Observer file photo)

The Mecklenburg County jail has been placed on a 48-hour lockdown as medical teams battle an uncontrolled surge of COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff.

In a 5:30 p.m. Thursday statement, the sheriff’s office said 107 inmates had tested positive for the disease. That compares to 74 on Monday and only three cases leading into the Thanksgiving holiday.

In the statement, Chief Deputy Rodney Collins says some 20 jail staff members tested positive for COVID-19 this week who did not know they were even sick.

The outbreak led Wellpath, the jail’s contracted medical provider, to do widespread testing of inmates and staff, which will continue through the weekend and possibly into next week, the sheriff’s statement said.

The jail will be locked down for at least the next 48 hours, and longer if need be, according to the statement.

“In order to facilitate contact tracing as efficiently as possible while minimizing additional exposures and potential spread of the virus, the Detention Center has eliminated all visitation and movement of residents for at least the next 48 hours, keeping all residents in Respiratory Isolation while contact tracing takes place,” the statement said.

“State and Federal Court authorities have been made aware. No in-custody defendants will be transported for previously scheduled court appearances (Friday).”

The surge in cases was originally blamed on staff members who returned to work after Thanksgiving not knowing they had contracted the virus, the sheriff’s office had earlier said.

That testing this week had revealed 20 jailers who did not know they were infected calls into question the effectiveness of the screening all employees are required to undergo before entering the jail.

The overwhelmingly number of inmate cases have been mild or asymptomatic, according to the statement. Only two of inmates have become sick enough to require treatment in the jail infirmary.

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The lockdown throws another pandemic-related wrench into the state’s largest local court district. Criminal defendants will not be taken to the Mecklenburg courthouse for in-person hearings on Friday.

Defense attorneys cannot visit their clients at the jail. As of now, hearings scheduled for Monday in Superior Court will go on. However, the size of the jail outbreak could impact court activity well into the coming week.

On Tuesday, courthouse officials announced they were suspending jury trials for at least the rest of the month as the pandemic’s second wave sets daily records for new infections.

Mecklenburg courts resumed jury trials during a resurgent pandemic. Now they’re stopping.

“These are challenging times for us all,” Sheriff Garry McFadden said in the statement. “Our residents and their families should know that we continue to do all that we can to care for and protect those individuals entrusted to us.

“Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this horrible virus is that it can be spread so easily by individuals who have no idea that they themselves are sick.”

Charlotte attorney Tim Emry, a leader in the call to dramatically reduce the jail population in light of the resurgent pandemic, said Thursday that the COVID lockdown “essentially makes the right to and access of counsel non-existent.”

Emry said he had two bond hearings scheduled for Friday that have now been canceled. He described one of his clients “as an 18-year-old girl with no prior convictions who wants to be home for Christmas.”

“The jail is so dangerous that they have to lock everyone down,” he said. “Perhaps people shouldn’t be in it.”