Positive tests cause challenges at the southern Virginia facility.
DANVILLE – The first positive test came Sept. 30. At that point, the Danville Sheriff’s Office alerted the public that an inmate at the city jail had COVID-19. Even though employees quickly isolated the inmate, it wasn’t enough to stop the spread. By Oct. 23, 31% of inmates and 34% of jail employees had become infected.
Staff members with positive COVID test results remained home until cleared from the virus. However, that created a staffing issue, with one-third out of work.
Since March, the virus also created a housing issue for those awaiting trial.
“There’s very minimal movement within the jail. Of course, that disrupts the court system. We’re already on a backlog of jury cases, unrelated to this. Until the Supreme Court lifts the ban, we won’t have any jury cases,” Danville Sheriff Mike Mondul said. “The Department of Corrections has been backed up since March. That was just lifted. They were just able to take people. Of course, a week later, boom, we get hit with the COVID. It’s really compounded our jail capacity.”
Another challenge arose with staffing. At last count, one-third tested positive for COVID-19.
“The staff has been hit,” Mondul said. “That creates a number of layered issues with any typical division, themselves, of trying to cover manpower with manpower that is already short.”
On top of a reduced staff due to the virus, there are also five vacancies on the force. An additional five recruits are currently in the police academy. Mondul said he’d never seen so many vacancies, but noted the virus isn’t the only culprit.
“I would say we usually don’t have a problem with applications. Since this anti-law enforcement sentiment set in a couple months ago, we really have seen not just a drop off, but a freeze. We’ve got zero applications pending,” Mondul said. “That’s not just our office. I was just with a bunch of chiefs and sheriff’s today from other surrounding areas. It’s the same story around. It’s really a sad state of affairs.”
The infection spread quickly. On Oct. 2, the department released one round of testing results. In three housing units, 23 out of 25 inmates tested positive for COVID-19. The following day, there were a cumulative total of 49 positive tests.
On Oct. 6, hundreds of people in the jail received a COVID-19 test. That included staff, inmates and Mondul. The results came back quickly. The following day, the Danville Sheriff’s Office revealed 73 inmates, cumulatively, tested positive, 136 tested negative and approximately 20 refused testing.
Out of 13 staff members tested, 10 results came back positive. Mondul and two other law enforcement agents were not among the positive tests.
The National Guard stepped in on Oct. 8. They helped fit staff members with N-95 masks. The remaining inmates and staff in the jail also received COVID-19 tests. Out of those, 87 inmate tests to date came back positive, while 140 remained negative. For staff members, 13 tested positive overall, leaving 17, including Mondul, unaffected by the virus.
The sheriff’s office posted its last COVID-19 update on Oct. 12, which revealed 87 cumulative positive inmate tests, 140 negative and 22 refusals. For staff, 14 tested positive overall, while 28 – including Mondul and the jail administrators – received negative test results.
After Oct. 12, the sheriff’s office discontinued public posts about the number of inmates and staff impacted.
“We really kind of turned it over to the health department at that point,” Mondul said. “We’ve been sending them really timely reports, from our end. We count on them to kind of keep up with the numbers from this point forward.”
Throughout the outbreak, no inmates exhibited serious COVID-related illnesses. Four staff members went to the hospital, with one currently there.
Working to stop an outbreak
The Danville City Jail did what it could to prevent an outbreak. For nearly seven months, their policies worked.
“We stepped up from the beginning,” Mondul said. “We stepped up our cleaning.”
The jail implemented an optional mask policy, dependent upon each individual’s wishes. Staff also performed temperature checks.
“Everybody that came in, we asked them the standard COVID questions. You know, ‘Have you been out of the country? Do you have a fever?’” Mondul said. “All that’s become standard, commonplace questions now to go anywhere.”
When the outbreak occurred, staff immediately implemented quarantines for the impacted housing blocks. Inmates with positive COVID results received care from the medical team, including a doctor, an LPN, an RN and two EMTs.
This month, the Danville City Jail changed its mask policy. Now, all staff must wear masks in the jail. Inmates have masks, but Mondul noted few utilize them.
The department also purchased two more electrostatic sprayers to amplify cleaning in the courts and jails.
Additionally, the sheriff’s office suspended all volunteer programs and inmate weekender programs.
COVID-19 cases climb
Danville City Jail isn’t the only Virginia facility dealing with a situation like this. Henrico County officials continued multiple court cases this week, after courthouse employees tested positive for COVID-19.
On the national level, Johns Hopkins University reported 83,010 new cases Friday. That’s the fourth-highest daily number since March. It also follows a growing trend, after 70,000 cases were reported Thursday. In fact, throughout this week, the numbers kept climbing. That didn’t come as any surprise to scientists, however.
“This week, we will probably have our highest number of cases that we’ve ever had on a daily basis in the United States,” US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams had warned earlier on Friday, while speaking at the Meridian Global Leadership Summit on Global Health Diplomacy.
He pointed to the fact 32 states reported spikes in the days prior. Virginia was one of those. It’s been hard for the commonwealth to get out of the “orange zone” when it comes to infections. Days of declining numbers are followed by spikes in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Then the cycle starts all over again.
Creating a game plan
“We’ve started to peek out of the clouds now, with people who have completed their two-week period,” Mondul said.
Over the coming days, Mondul and his staff will discuss the best options, moving forward.
“Since we’re in this two-week quarantine period, we’re trying to figure out where we go from here. Do we retest, period? What does that look like?” Mondul said. “That’s what we’re navigating right now.”
While COVID-19 didn’t claim any lives in the jail outbreak, the sheriff expressed caution that the facility wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“I think we’re trying to do the best we can with the information we have, as we have it. I think it’s a little early, yet, to be really proud of anything, much less comfortable with anything until it’s over. And it’s not over. I’m no historian or scientist, but if this virus acts anything like the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, as it seems to act like it, and the characteristics that I’ve read, we’ve got another wave coming,” Mondul said. “I shudder to try to – I mean, I always try to be the eternal optimist, but I don’t want to be overconfident at this point for something I really can’t control.”
Still, those at the Danville jail will press forward and continue implementing best practices for all involved.
“We’re trying to get everybody past it as best we can,” Mondul said.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]