Fifty-one inmates tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, making it 71 inmates who had tested positive this week and showing how quickly the virus is capable of spreading in a confined facility that, until now, had escaped any confirmed cases.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office began sending a daily email this week with the number of tests conducted and the number of positive results for the prior day. Friday’s showed a sudden surge the day before.
The emails don’t say how many results have come back, making it impossible to know what percent of tests are positive, a key statistic being used by politicians and experts to measure how widespread the disease is, particularly among asymptomatic carriers.
Spokesman Officer Christian Hancock said the Sheriff’s Office planned to have tested every inmate by the end of Friday, except for the nine who have declined tests. It’s not clear how long it will take for test results to come back.
The sudden spike in coronavirus cases began after a doctor, working on contract at the jail, tested positive for COVID-19 last week. By Monday, the Sheriff’s Office announced that 20 inmates had subsequently tested positive.
Hancock said no Sheriff’s Office employees have tested positive.
Employees are not mandated to take tests, and neither employees nor inmates are required to wear masks in the facilities, according to Undersheriff Pat Ivey.
Jails and prisons have come under scrutiny since the pandemic hit the United States, showing how quickly the virus spreads in closed confinement where social distancing is difficult if not impossible.
In the North County jail outside Los Angeles, there have been about 1,400 confirmed cases. In the Harris County jail in Houston, there have been about 1,400 cases. In the Cook County jail in Chicago, there have been about 1,100 cases.
A March memo by prosecutors had called for significant reductions in the jail population for both those awaiting trial and those sentenced on misdemeanors. At the time, there were 3,010 people sitting in one of the county’s jails.
Quickly, the new policies, which included asking judges to release inmates without bond while awaiting trial, dropping charges and seeking plea deals that wouldn’t require any more time in jail, saw a drop in the jail population.
But since late April, the jail population has risen again, although the 2,689 inmates as of Thursday still remains lower than the about 3,000 inmates the population hovered at before the coronavirus hit.
Hancock said he didn’t know where the 71 inmates were housed or if they were all in contact with the doctor.
He said the county office of the Florida Department of Health is handling testing.
The Department of Health has not yet returned a request for comment.