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Durham sheriff requests more COVID-19 testing for county jail

Because exposure to the coronavirus remains a risk inside Durham County Detention Center, the sheriff wants funding to test inmates and staff more frequently.

One hospitalized inmate sick with COVID-19 has been on and off ventilators over the past four weeks, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told county commissioners on Tuesday.

To keep staff, inmates and the wider community safe, Birkhead asked county commissioners for funding to have jail inmates and staff tested for the virus every two weeks.

“We take this very seriously,” Birkhead said during a commissioners meeting.

On April 25, Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from COVID-19. After an outbreak in August, testing confirmed 21 cases among 262 inmates and five among  staff.

Testing staff and inmates every two weeks would cost between $60,000 to $110,000 each time, depending on whether the county health department or Duke University handled the testing, Birkhead said. Alternatively, his department could test 20 employees every two weeks he said.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked whether an approach that falls between those two options might be preferable. “One is the Cadillac at 200 and one seems quite low at 20, is there one in between?” she asked.

Birkhead agreed to return to the commissioners with more details about testing options as early as Monday. 

An important group to test are inmates getting released from center custody into the community, the sheriff said. The center releases 73 residents on average a month and they are not tested before departing, he said.

The sheriff also proposed requiring that each new detention center hire test negative for the virus within seven days before beginning work.

“Every employee and every person housed here can be infected with COVID-19,” said Anothony Prignano, chief deputy for detention said.

Beyond testing, department staff continue to take steps to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading at the facility, Birkhead said.

If a previously confined person leaves the detention center and returns, they are placed in quarantine for 14 days. That includes people in custody who go to the Durham County Courthouse, where multiple cases of coronavirus have been detected in the clerk of court’s, magistrate’s, and district attorney’s offices, the sheriff said.

For the 14-day quarantine, jail residents are housed in a part of the detention center separate from the rest of the population. People admitted to the center stay there too until it’s clear they are not carrying the virus, said department spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen. 

Center staff are sticking with cleaning protocols started in March. Using a disinfectant, staff clean every four hours and whenever residents leave and return to their cells.

Reckhow and board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs questioned why insurance would not cover county employee testing costs. A member of Birkhead’s  staff explained that current workers compensation insurance does not cover preventative COVID-19 tests. 

Commissioners also asked why the hospitalized inmate who was convicted of a felony remains in the Durham detention center. 

Typically such an inmate would have been transferred to a state prison within 20 to 25 days of their conviction, Birkhead said. The state, which is also working to reduce coronavirus exposure among its inmates, is paying the county detention center $40 a day to continue to hold these individuals, as well as covering their medical costs.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People inside the Durham County Detention Center peer out to watch street protesters march by on Sept. 4. Protesters were demanding more information about why police officer approached youngsters with guns last month. Photo by Henry Haggart