Metro Atlanta jails ramp up precautions as coronavirus fears grow

In this 2012 AJC file photo, Fulton County Officer Niasha Cooper observes through an open cellblock door at the Fulton County Jail. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

In this 2012 AJC file photo, Fulton County Officer Niasha Cooper observes through an open cellblock door at the Fulton County Jail. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

As worries grow about the coronavirus outbreak, officials across metro Atlanta are taking steps to protect an especially vulnerable population: inmates in county jails.

Days after Georgia’s first two coronavirus cases were confirmed, DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox said it is “only a matter of time before the first case in DeKalb is reported.” Her office has implemented additional precautions to keep the infectious disease from spreading among inmates and jail staff.

In Fulton County, where the state’s two confirmed victims live, a jail employee who recently traveled to Asia was instructed to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days, a precaution health authorities have encouraged, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said.

» THE LATEST: Complete coverage of coronavirus in Georgia

Inmates, Maddox said, are especially at risk for the virus, since they live in close quarters and are sometimes transported in and out of the jail for court appearances. About 35 to 40 people are booked into the DeKalb jail every day, and many are released within 24 hours, the sheriff said at a press conference Wednesday. DeKalb’s jail currently houses about 1,800 people who are awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than two years. The facility on Memorial Drive can hold 3,800 inmates.

No potential cases of coronavirus among DeKalb jail inmates or staff have been reported. But Maddox wanted to assure friends and family members of inmates that “we are prepared and well equipped to handle any medical crisis that may arise inside this facility.”

She said other county jails in metro Atlanta are following similar guidelines as angst grows over the possible spread of coronavirus in Georgia.

When an inmate is booked into the jail, they are screened for symptoms of the virus and asked about recent international travel, said Terri Van Dorn, the health services administrator for Wellpath, which contracts with the sheriff’s office to provide medical services. The CDC recently expanded guidelines for coronavirus testing to include people with symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath coupled with travel to high-risk areas, including China, Italy, Iran and South Korea.

The Fulton jail is taking similar precautions, Flanagan said. New hand-washing stations are being installed in public areas at the main jail and the jail annexes, which can hold 3,048 inmates.

DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox speaks at Wednesday’s press conference.

icon to expand image

DeKalb’s jail infirmary has six isolation cells; inmates can also be transported to Grady Memorial Hospital if they need to be kept in a more serious quarantine. Staff members are keeping a “watchful eye” on inmates to see if they develop symptoms after coming into the facility, Van Dorn said.

The DeKalb County Board of Health said Tuesday that while no cases have been reported in DeKalb, officials are “ready to respond” if they surface.

“The two cases identified in Fulton County are travel-related exposures, not community spread,” DeKalb County District Health Director S. Elizabeth Ford said in a statement. “While I realize that everyone is greatly concerned about the rapid spread of the virus in several parts of the world, the actions that you would take to prevent the spread of any respiratory disease is the very same for COVID-19.”

So far, there are more than 100 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States, including people in Washington, California, Florida and New York. Many of the diagnoses have come in the last week.

Follow DeKalb County News on Facebook and Twitter