Hundreds of Sullivan County Jail inmates refuse COVID-19 testing during outbreak


SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- It’s currently impossible to know how many inmates at the Sullivan County Jail are positive for COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, Sullivan County Health Department numbers said the jail has had 198 positive tests since the pandemic began. 176 of those are inmates, while 22 are staff. But jail officials confirm not all inmates have been tested.

Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Health Administrator Christy Frazier says about 400 inmates refused to be tested during the jail’s recent mass-testing.

“We cannot make them test, they do have the right to refuse that. And some of them, if they’re asymptomatic, they do not want to test,” Frazier told News Channel 11 on Thursday.

The Sullivan County Jail had 719 inmates Thursday morning, exactly 100 inmates over its capacity of 619.

Frazier confirmed a number of inmates have pre-existing conditions, but so far no inmates have needed hospitalization. She said most positive inmates are asymptomatic or are only exhibiting mild cold symptoms. She said more testing will be done Friday.

With 22 employees testing positive as of Wednesday, the jail has been short-staffed.

News Channel 11 reached out to the Sullivan County Health Department for updated COVID-19 numbers for the jail on Thursday, and did not hear back.

On Thursday morning, Frazier told News Channel 11 that 30 SCSO employees had tested positive, while 48 tested negative. She confirmed one employee has been hospitalized.

“About half of our employees right now are out with the illness,” she said. “We’re working very hard. It is a lot of work.”

The overcrowding and outdated infrastructure at the jail are well-documented, with Sullivan County leaders trying to find solutions for years. Frazier said conditions like the main jail having only one HVAC system has caused challenges during a viral outbreak.

“We have a linear design, and we’re overcrowded. So we are very limited on our segregation cells,” she said.

Since March, all-high risk inmates have been identified and closely monitored. Some inmates with high-risk health conditions have received quicker bond motion hearings to try to get them out of the jail.

Sullivan County’s new pre-trial release program has also helped reduce the inmate population in the jail. Since March, 166 inmates have been released through the program. In total, 240 inmates have been released since the program began in January 2020.

Frazier confirmed inmates have masks they must wear outside their cells. She said the jail is supplied with enough PPE. Everyone is screened before entering the jail, but with approximately 20 inmates coming in and out every day, the risk for community spread is high.

All released inmates are told to quarantine for 14 days, with the Sullivan County Health Department keeping track of them. Frazier said if they have any symptoms, they can be tested for free at the Health Department.

“We acknowledge the risk for the community that this virus has, just within our jail,” said Frazier. “We’re willing to do anything we can to help.”

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