Local jails facing challenges with testing, PPE amid coronavirus pandemic

Posted at 7:29 PM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-21 22:41:34-04

NORFOLK, Va. - "It’s extremely frustrating,” says Sheriff Gabriel Morgan Sr. with the Newport News City Jail. He's trying to figure out what to do with inmates who are exhibiting what he says are possible coronavirus symptoms.

"I give them a flu test. I can tell you they don’t have the flu, but I can't tell you whether they have COVID-19 and the test is not available to us,” he adds.

Sheriff Morgan says about six inmates are in medical quarantine at the jail.

"I've ordered the swab kits and that’s on back order, so I don’t even have kits here to say swab and be able to send somewhere. I have nothing,” says Sheriff Morgan.

He says a jail is the last place you want a virus to spread because of the close living conditions.

"If you look at nursing homes, we are the equivalent of a nursing home on steroids."

On Sunday, an inmate at Hampton Roads Regional Jail tested positive for coronavirus. That inmate is in isolation. And right now, four deputies with the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office are at home self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19. The sheriff’s office says no inmates have tested positive.

Governor Ralph Northam is working with the courts to keep people who are not a threat to the public out of jail.

“In late February, we saw about 10,000 people entering regional or local jails over a two-week period. Now it’s just over 4,000,” said Governor Northam at a press conference on Friday.

At the Norfolk City Jail, the population has reduced from almost 900 inmates in March to about 700 as of Tuesday. And inside the Chesapeake City Jail, offenders coming in with misdemeanors decreased by almost 80%.

"The most dangerous people are incarcerated, and those that impose little risk are usually not incarcerated here in Newport News,” Sheriff Morgan adds.

Local jails say they are checking the temperatures of inmates and employees who enter the jail. They're also isolating new inmates for 14 days before they enter the general population.

Sheriff Morgan said he's had some luck getting additional personal protective equipment for his staff with the help of local city leaders.

"We were out competing with the state, the federal, everybody for the same PPE, which made it very difficult," he adds.

In a statement to News 3, the Chesapeake Sheriff's Office says:

The Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office (like many other facilities) has been working diligently to acquire more PPE. We have worked with the City of Chesapeake to provide our staff (deputies and civilians) with face masks. As the staff enters and exits the facility, they are at a higher risk of potentially spreading the virus. We are working with local businesses to provide cloth face masks for our inmate trustees who work around the facility and therefore have a higher potential of contracting the virus. We have also started sewing our own cloth masks for inmate trustees.

Click here for full coronavirus coverage.