As deaths rise,  Fulton, Atlanta jails watch for coronavirus

The outside of the Fulton County Jail is seen on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The outside of the Fulton County Jail is seen on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Fulton County and Atlanta jail officials are taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to inmates.

While there are no cases at Fulton County Jail, an inmate is in isolation inside the jail after officials learned his daughter might have been exposed to the virus, spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said. The inmate, who has been in jail since Friday, will be in isolation for 14 days as a precaution.

“The jail has negative pressure rooms for patients to prevent the spread of airborne pathogens to other areas of the jail,” Flanagan said in response to emailed questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


The jail also sent a food service worker home before she even entered the jail after learning there was a concern at her apartment building related to the virus, Flanagan said.

Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in a prepared statement that it was not right to hold the inmate in isolation or endanger others during the epidemic.

“Jails are public health powder kegs on a good day, and this highly contagious virus could wreak havoc,” she said. “ ... Elderly and infirm people held in jails should be released immediately, and we must de-prioritize arrests and pretrial detention.”


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The state of COVID-19 in the jails came up during a Fulton Board of Commissioners meeting Wednesday.

“To me,” Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. said, “our jail has to be one of our top priorities … If we do not immediately get a hold of (the virus with) those people in close confinement in jail, we’ll be doing ourselves and our county a disservice.”

Commissioner Liz Hausmann asked staff if they had been talking to Atlanta officials about using the city’s nearby detention center in case of the worst in the Fulton jail.

County Manager Dick Anderson said there have not been conversations with the city of Atlanta about use of the detention center.

“We got to have a back-up plan of some sort,” Hausmann said.

Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford, interim director of the Fulton health department, said that they are also trying to form a plan for the homeless in Fulton.


READ | Jails, prisons try to hold off COVID-19 as critics want more done


She said the county is looking at dormitories and hotels willing to house or quarantine people who are homeless but haven’t found any. She said that, if it got bad enough, there is another set of options: the county jail or the city’s detention center.

“If we get desperate enough, it will definitely be on the list,” Ford said, later adding, “I’m not comfortable with the optics of that.”

Jail staff and inmates are under a tight screening process to prevent a spread of the virus inside the jail. Throughout Georgia, there have been 10 deaths attributed to the virus and there were 287 confirmed cases on Thursday, according to the state's health department.


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Inmates already inside the jail who develop symptoms will be isolated, Flanagan said. Any new inmate that comes to the jail is screened at the entrance for coronavirus symptoms, and anyone who has been exposed to the virus or exhibits symptoms will not be let inside the jail.

In-person visits to the jail are suspended, but online video visitation is available at www.fultonsheriff.net. With the exception of attorneys, judges, clergy and healthcare providers, all members of the public should avoid going to the jail, Flanagan said.

Jail staff and inmates have also been cleaning jail facilities. “We have trained staff on social distancing and have provided floor markings in the lobby of the jail” to help them keep safe distances, Flanagan said.

The Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice St. holds 2,500 inmates and has 850 workers, Flanagan said.

The Atlanta City Detention Center is taking similar steps to control the spread of the virus, including taking an inmate’s temperature if necessary, spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield said. Inmates also undergo a questionnaire about coronavirus exposure before they are booked into the jail.

Anyone with severe symptoms is taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, Bradfield said.

Like the Fulton jail, there are no coronavirus cases at the Atlanta City Detention Center, which held 133 inmates on Monday. One inmate was screened at Grady and then released to the jail’s custody, Bradfield said. He was isolated as a precaution until he posted bond and was released.

Bradfield said staff has been urged to exercise caution when they interact with detainees and prevent unnecessary exposure to the virus by using personal protective equipment.

Employees who’ve traveled or plan to travel outside the United States must notify their supervisor and have a written doctor’s note of release before returning to work, Bradfield said.

“At this time, we have two employees who have complied with this policy,” Bradfield said.


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