Photo: Sheriff Danny Rogers (center) shares a light-hearted moment with County Manager Marty Lawing before a press conference in the county commissioners chamber. (photo by Jordan Green)

Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers said he has 72 beds set aside for quarantine in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak in the county’s detention system; the sheriff’s office operates jails in Greensboro and High Point.

But he downplayed a previous report that he’s working on a plan for releasing some nonviolent, pre-trial detainees early as a measure to reduce the jail population, saying that decision would be left up to judges.

“With regards to the early-release program or whatever the judges may decide to do, we’re going to leave that in their hands,” Rogers said during a press conference in the Guilford County commissioners’ chambers on this morning. “We’re gonna do what has to be done — what we’ve been ordered to do.”

Lori Poag, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, clarified later: “As far as the inmates who are considered nonviolent we’re working with the DA’s office, the district court and public defenders to get their bonds lowered so they can be released. We definitely need the space in case we have more inmates come in with heavier charges and to keep the social distancing.”

Rogers also said the sheriff’s office has an adequate supply of COVID-19 test kits to meet the needs of inmates and jail staff who present with symptoms.

Medical and dental copays are currently being waived so inmates don’t feel deterred from seeking care, Poag said.

On Thursday, the ACLU of North Carolina and other groups issued a call to local sheriffs to work with courts and prosecutors to immediately identify and release inmates who are elderly, medically fragile, pregnant or incarcerated due to probation and parole violations, among other categories.

The groups also called on sheriffs to develop a medical quarantine plan for people who present COVID-19 symptoms.

“But as far as making sure that our detention services, our inmates as well as our staff, are protected inside, we do have the cleaning that’s been going on. We do have the additional 72 beds, in case there is an outbreak. If anyone is tested positive for the COVID-19 disease, we will have to quarantine [them] off until we actually get through the process.”

The Greensboro Jail has a capacity of 1,032, with a current population of 659, Poag said. The High Point is closer to capacity, with a current population of 267 inmates for 274 available beds.

County officials also announced curtailment of some programs to minimize contact between people and control the disease.

Effective Monday, access to the social services buildings in Greensboro and High Point will be limited, and clients will be encouraged to conduct business over the phone or online. The Department of Public Health is also closing its dental clinics in Greensboro and High Point. Also effective Monday, the county tax offices in Greensboro and High Point will be closed to the public. And Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen said his office will discontinue issuing passports and performing civil marriages.

But the child-support enforcement office and planning and development department will remain open to the public.

“It’s important to note that no changes will be made at this time to the permitting and inspection schedules,” County Manager Marty Lawing said. “Somehow, a rumor got out here that inspections will not be made. That is not the truth. We expect commerce to continue, and to support our contractors with permitting and inspections.”

Lawing said the county is asking for voluntary compliance with Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to close all bar and restaurant seating areas, while also urging residents to continue to patronize restaurants for takeout.

“Just because the dine-in option has been temporarily removed, there should be no question or concerns about food safety,” Lawing said. “The food’s being prepared in kitchens inspected by the county health department. The restaurants must continue to meet state requirements.”

Lawing said he participated in a White House conference call with county and municipal officials earlier this week.

“Federal officials confirmed to municipal and county officials that the country’s food-supply chain is strong,” Lawing said. “There’s no need for people to hoard or purchase more than they need at the current time.”

Late Thursday, the county identified the fourth person in Guilford County to test positive for COVID-19. Although there is at least one “community spread” case of COVID-19 in North Carolina, Interim Health Director Iulia Vann said all four cases in Guilford County involve patients who had recently traveled outside of the state. The health department is “working with each individual to identify possible close contacts in order to reduce the exposure to others,” Vann said.

“Unfortunately, based on epidemiological models, we expect to see other positive cases in our community in the following days and weeks,” Vann said. “This is why it is so important for our community to continue to follow the recommended guidelines so we can flatten the curve of this infection, decrease the number of people that get sick at the same time to prevent the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed by the number of patients that we will need to take care of.”

The county will no longer issue press releases for each new positive case of COVID-19, but instead will provide a running tally of cases on a special COVID-19 webpage.

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