County jail in midst of Covid-19 outbreak, origin not determined

A Covid-19 outbreak at the New Hanover County Detention Facility has engulfed staff and inmates. Officials said it’s difficult to maintain all protocols with a constant stream of new occupants. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After keeping Covid-19 at bay for most of 2020, the New Hanover County Detention Center is experiencing an outbreak among staff and inmates, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). 

According to Major Douglas Price of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, there are 23 cases among inmates in one housing unit and another 10 cases in a second housing unit. It’s unclear how the outbreak began. NCDHHS reports also indicate at least 13 detention center staffers have contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks. 

Related: A look at the coordinated local effort to keep jail populations down as coronavirus spreads


The NCDHHS defines an “outbreak” as two or more people living or working in a congregate setting testing positive for the virus within 28 days.

“It is pretty much impossible to 100% declare where an individual case came from,” Price said. “For the inmates, we try to do a 14-day quarantine protocol when they first come in.” 

Price said the standard policy, quarantining new detainees for 14 days, is often interrupted because of space needs. The 72-cell building that holds new “remands” can quickly reach capacity, which means those individuals are sometimes cycled into other areas of the facility to accommodate the new inmates.

“Because of the rapid influx of inmates into the facility, you don’t always have the luxury of doing a full 14-day protocol,” Price said. “It could be staff brought it in; it could be somebody that was on one of those force-outs for the protocol brought it in; it could be a lot of different things.”

In March, the detention center nixed visitations and pared down staff to only those who were essential. By June, at least two detention officers had tested positive. A smaller outbreak was identified in September, Price said.  

“We tried a lot of things with this new situation we were facing, involving multiple inmates that were positive, and we feel like we did a pretty good job minimizing it the best we can,” Price said.

New arrivals fill out a medical screening form with questions about possible Covid-19 symptoms and exposure, masks are automatically issued, and sanitization has ramped up. There are two “negative pressure rooms,” Price said, which “keep the air clean by sucking all the dirty air out of the top of the facility.” 

Since space is limited in those areas, housing units can be transitioned into quarantine spaces if the number of positives in any given unit becomes overbearing. 

Further, inmates can put in a “sick call,” Price said, effectively a request for medical attention.

“Based on their signs, their symptoms or their answers on the questionnaire, then we will make the determination to test them or not to test them,” he added. 

According to the sheriff’s office website, 98 deputies and 71 detention officers work at the facility, as do nine members of a civilian support staff. 

A judge ordered state prisons to test all inmates as part of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of conditions in June in an event that discovered a 2.1 positivity rate, and routine testing of prison staff began in December, according to Carolina Public Press

A spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the institution in charge of the prison system, said the current statewide prison population of approximately 30,000 people have all been tested at least once. 

“So far, more than 37,500 individual offenders have been tested for the virus since the pandemic began, and Prisons has conducted more than 85,000 separate COVID-19 tests on offenders,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Significantly, despite this several-fold increase in testing per population, the state prisons currently have a daily percent positive rate of 6-9 percent.”

Detention facilities, however, which are overseen by each county’s sheriff’s office, are not subject to stringent testing requirements. 

Price said his gut feeling is that the ongoing outbreak is a result of an inmate being transferred out of the quarantine stage before 14 days had expired, which led to a contagious individual being exposed to other inmates.

Related: By the numbers: The latest Covid-19 data in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties [Free] 

“Because we were pushed into a reduction of our 14-day protocol, somebody slips through the cracks, because you can have asymptomatic people or you can have somebody that doesn’t start showing signs or symptoms as early as other people,” Price said.

Adding to the difficulty, detention centers are bound by law to accept all new remands unless a medical condition requires prior clearance from the hospital. Covid-19 is not included in the conditions requiring a hospital clearance, Price said. Even if a facility makes a good-faith effort to promote the medical welfare of its population, rogue inmates can still cause problems. Urinating and feces throwing are not unheard of.

“So many people are knocking on our door wanting to visit our lovely home,” Price said, “and we don’t have any ability to tell them not to, so we have to take some of those people that might be Covid-positive, and we have to move them down there with other inmates.”


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