Protesters responding to the police killing of George Floyd kneel outside the Forsyth County jail. (photo by Jordan Green)

Five detention officers at the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19, the sheriff’s office confirmed.

Christina Howell, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said she believes the virus was introduced into the jail by an employee who was going about daily living activities and going into public spaces.

“As far as I’m aware, we had zero positive results from residents,” Howell told Triad City Beat. “I understand because it is a closed environment that there has been a lot of fear from the beginning, and now we have an outbreak. We have been extremely proactive, trying to prevent that. We are responsible for the physical safety and security of the residents, and we take that seriously.”

Now that the virus has been introduced into the jail, Howell said all the residents have been issued surgical masks and encouraged to use them.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Brad Gilmore, a 50-year-old construction worker who spent about 15 months in the jail before his release in late May, said he was threatened with solitary confinement for trying to improvise a mask by covering his mouth with a T-shirt.

“He would not have received a mask until we confirmed cases,” Howell said. “Our residents were not issued masks to wear because they were not leaving the facility, and picking up new germs and coming back into the facility. With the limited number of masks, the best use of our resources was to mask the individuals who were coming in and leaving, which was the staff.”

Julie Brady, a Wake Forest Law School student who is active with the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund, said residents in the jail have said that contrary to assurances from the sheriff’s office, they are not receiving masks.

Among a number of procedures put in place to protect residents and staff, the press release issued by the sheriff’s office on Friday says newly admitted residents are held in intake housing for 14 days before being moved into the general population.

Gilmore said he was in the medical unit for a heart condition, brain tumor and early-stage cirrhosis of the liver.

“They brought them in the medical pod when they came in,” he said. “They would use the same amenities.”

Howell said the 14-day hold does not apply to newly booked residents who need to be in the medical unit.

“When the virus hit, they made a statement in the paper that the inmates’ temperatures was checked,” Gilmore said. “Where I was, on the medical floor — if anyone was subject to get sick, it would have been us — nobody’s temperatures were taken.”

Gilmore said on one occasion a man who had been arrested for public drunkenness told other residents in the medical unit that he was running a fever, and Gilmore said he overheard staff asking whether anyone checked the man’s temperature.

“As far as I’m aware, the procedure is for everyone to have temperature checks,” Howell said. “That would have been part of the medical screening. I can’t say under what circumstances that may have been missed.”

She said she doesn’t know whether there’s a policy requiring ongoing temperature checks for long-term residents.

Gilmore said while he was on the medical unit he suffered from a throat infection, congestion and shortness of breath, but he was not tested for COVID-19 and was not aware of any other residents getting tested either.

Residents are only tested for COVID-19 if they exhibit symptoms or have come into contact with anyone who has the virus, Howell said.

“We know that incarcerated people are not getting tested,” said Julie Brady with the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund. “We would call for the regular testing of everyone in the jail.”

Howell said that decision would be made by WellPath, the jail’s contracted medical services provider, which operates under a contract with the county Department of Public Health.

Howell said she does not know whether the sheriff’s office plans to test all residents now that the virus has been introduced into the jail, adding that she would look into it and provide additional information at a later time.

A jail population specialist at the sheriff’s office “continues to work closely with the district attorney’s office to proactively manage the FCLEDC population,” the press release said. “By receiving continually updated information, the DA’s office is able to work within the judicial system to minimize the number of new residents introduced into the existing population.”

As of Friday, the number of residents at the jail stands at 643, compared to 703, when TCB started tracking the jail population on March 25. The sheriff’s office said that from March 13 through June 12, 1,448 residents have been released while 1,323 arrestees have been booked into the jail over the same period. Arrest records show that people are still getting booked into the jail on minor misdemeanors like failure to appear, along with more serious offenses like cocaine trafficking and assault on a female.

Advocates for criminal justice reform and public health experts have been calling on local officials to reduce the jail population to prevent an outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen COVID-19 hotspots in jails and prisons across the country,” Brady said. “That is going to happen here unless everyone is released immediately. We’re renewing our call for everyone to be released, whether they’re pre-trial or serving a sentence that might turn into a death sentence.”

The press release said decisions about early release of residents is up to the judicial system and not the sheriff’s office.

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