Sheriff Gualtieri reports outbreak of COVID-19 in county jail

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tells county commissioners about an outbreak of COVID-19 at the county jail during a June 11 special meeting.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told commissioners during a June 11 meeting to talk about increases in COVID-19 cases that he had a “big problem at the jail.”

He said in the last 48 hours, 20 people, including inmates and staff, had tested positive for COVID-19.

He said he is making “very significant changes” at the jail, including not booking inmates except for serious crimes.

He said many more had been tested with results still pending. The jail has adequate capacity to isolate inmates for now. But staffing is a challenge.

For example, three inmate records specialists tested positive, so he had to send the entire day shift home for 14 days. Staff had to be realigned to make up for those 30 people. C barracks is closed down and quarantined he said.

The sheriff’s office announced June 9 that not only had the inmate records specialists tested positive, but a jail social worker and two detention deputies had COVID-19, as well as a patrol deputy out of the North District Station in Dunedin.

The sheriff is worried about bringing any new people into the jail, so he has asked local police chiefs to only book those with serious charges.

His goal is to “flatten the curve and slow this thing down,” as testing continues.

“It’s concerning,” he said.

The sheriff’s office issued a press release later in the day providing more details.

“Within the last couple of days there have been 13 staff members and five inmates test positive for COVID-19,” the release said.

The staff members are mostly from inmate records and deputies working in North Division. All five inmates who have tested positive were housed in C Barracks and those inmates are now in respiratory isolation. Fourteen jail employees are waiting on test results. All 30 day-shift inmate records employees are on home quarantine.

To curb the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, Gualtieri has implemented the following measures, effective immediately.

• No inmates will be transported to the courthouse, and all court appearances will be by videoconferencing.

• Judges have been asked to refrain from remanding defendants to custody, but when necessary the defendants will be transported with a mask via compound transport van.

• No inmates will be transported to the Florida Department of Corrections or any other correctional facilities.

• Law enforcement agencies are being asked to refer all misdemeanor cases to the State Attorney’s Office or issue notices to appear and not make physical arrests except for those charged with domestic violence, violations of injunctions or people who are threat to public safety.

• Law enforcement agencies are requested not to arrest anyone on a misdemeanor warrant unless it involves domestic violence or a violation of an injunction. Officers and deputies will tell the person to report to the jail and purge the warrant by paying the bond. If a person is arrested on a misdemeanor warrant, the sheriff’s office will contact the duty judge and seek to have the person released on their own recognizance.

• All DDC members, county staff, and contract staff are required to wear a cloth or surgical mask while in the jail.

• N95 masks shall be worn by members in the presence of inmates with suspected or known positive results.

• All inmates will be issued and required to wear a mask when leaving their housing area or having direct contact with staff. All inmates may wear masks in their housing units.

• Inmate commissary is sanitized before it arrives at the jail and distribution will occur only by jail staff.

• Social workers will communicate with inmates through the inmate kiosk system.

• Chaplain staff will communicate with inmates through the inmate kiosk system.

These measures will remain in effect until further notice and are necessary to ensure the health and safety of inmates and staff, the release said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.