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This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.
A post-Thanksgiving pandemic wave triggered by its own staff has crashed into the Mecklenburg County jail, which has seen a 20-fold increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks.
According to figures supplied by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to state and federal courts, the county’s Detention Center in uptown had zero cases of the disease on Nov. 18 and only three as of Nov. 23.
But that radically changed over the holiday weekend, a traditional period of heavy travel that health experts warned could set off a new surge of COVID-19. To date, the disease has infected more than 373,000 North Carolinians and killed some 5,400.
On Nov. 27, the day after the Thanksgiving, the number of jail cases had risen to 26. It grew to 32 by Monday before doubling by Wednesday to 64.
According to the sheriff’s office, the cases had inched up to 65 by Thursday afternoon. The office’s statement said 255 inmates were being quarantined, a significant increase from Monday’s figure of 169.
Now it appears the outbreak in the state’s largest jail was an inside job — ignited by jail staff who came to work “not knowing that they themselves were contagious with the virus,” according to a statement Thursday by the sheriff’s office.
Thirteen staffers have tested positive for the disease and are currently quarantining at home. Almost 60 have contracted the disease during the pandemic. One detention officer has died.
In the statement from the sheriff’s office, Chief Deputy Rodney Collins said most of the infected inmates have shown no or few symptoms. Only two inmates have required infirmary care, but none have needed hospitalization.
According to Collins, inmates who have tested positive, shown symptoms or who are considered to have undergone a “serious risk of exposure,” are kept in what is known as “respiratory isolation” from other inmates.
They stay there until they test negative, contact tracing rules out exposure, or they are considered no longer contagious by medical personnel.
As for staff, Collins said all are screened for fever, symptoms and possible exposure before being allowed to enter the jail.
‘A death on our hands’
The numbers of jail cases have renewed calls by those who say the local criminal justice system can and should do more to lessen the number of people confined in close jail quarters while the pandemic rages on.
“The dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County Jail screams out that a crisis is here,” said Charlotte attorney Tim Emry, one of the leaders of the #DecarcerateMecklenburg effort.
“I remind the people of Charlotte that the overwhelming majority of people in the jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are simply too poor to buy their freedom. They are our neighbors, relatives, and friends. We should all care about their health and well being.”
As of Thursday morning, the jail held 1,441 inmates, all but 100 at its Fourth Street site. More than half, around 850 in all, were awaiting trial. Forty-two inmates were booked Wednesday; 26 were released.
The current outbreak is the largest yet at the facility. In July, the jail reported 48 cases before the numbers quickly dropped.
According to Collins, the inmate caseload remained at three or lower for more than three months until the current outbreak.
“While we are, not surprisingly, seeing a surge in positive residents as the pandemic continues to spread in the community outside (the jail), the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office — our staff and our contracted medical providers — remain confident in our collective abilities to manage the pandemic,” even if the cases continue to climb, Collins said.
In all, 148 inmates have tested positive.
Meanwhile, attorneys and other activists continue to challenge the jail’s assertion that it has put adequate safety protocols in place.
“Without swift action by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, magistrates, judges, and the district attorney’s office, we are going to have a death on our hands,” Emry said.
Havoc in the courts
The county’s criminal justice system — with mixed success — has taken steps to reduce the jail population to protect against an outbreak of disease.
In March as the pandemic descended on Charlotte, the jail released dozens of inmates for safety reasons. Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch also suspended arrests for most misdemeanors to reduce the comings and goings inside the jail.
Still arrests have continued, and the jail’s population has resisted many of the efforts by judges and lawyers to shrink it. Meanwhile, the virus has played havoc with the courts in Mecklenburg and around the state.
First, the courts stopped jury trials and sharply reduced courthouse activity for almost nine months.
In mid-November, when Mecklenburg launched its first jury trial since March, the case ended in a mistrial last week due to delays caused repeated fears of juror exposure to the disease.
Now the jail outbreak threatens to bog down the courts even further.
According to the statement from the sheriff’s office, judges from both the federal and state courts have ordered that none of the quarantined jail inmates will be permitted to leave the jail for their scheduled court hearings.
While the quarantines are for safety reasons, they are also delaying hearings that could lead to an inmate’s release.
“It’s obviously a growing problem,” Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully said.