Jail COVID outbreak drove huge weekend spike in Sullivan County numbers

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Health department medical chief: Community spread level unchanged, ‘no time for complacency’

BLOUNTVILLE (WJHL) – A COVID-19 case cluster at the Sullivan County Jail accounted for most of a weekend spike in new cases, county officials said.

The jail now reports at least 166 people have contracted the virus, up from 39 as of Friday. Dr. Stephen May of the Sullivan County Health Department (SCHD) said the additional 127 positives are the primary reason for 164 positive cases reported Saturday.

That number shattered Sullivan County’s previous one-day high in new cases of 46, set on July 31. It followed a total of 45 new cases Friday and the county reported an additional 34 Sunday.

The jail’s cluster of cases means the high weekend numbers don’t represent an increase in community spread, but May urged vigilance.

“This is still not a time to become complacent,” May said. “It’s the time that we still need to continue with the physical distancing with wearing a mask religiously.” 

May said a jail employee became ill last week and tested positive for COVID after being hospitalized.

“With our process of working it up, we identified … a number (of inmates) that had symptoms that could’ve been consistent with the inmates and then those were tested.”

Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell told WJHL early Monday afternoon that 148 inmates and 18 staff were known to have tested positive.

Dr. May said the 166 positives came from a total of 278 tests conducted over the weekend.

Friday’s report showed 29 inmates and 10 staff had tested positive. Carswell said the SCHD is working closely with SCSO to provide testing that delivers results as quickly as possible.

Dr. May said one person infected through the jail outbreak has been hospitalized.

“Amazingly, most of the symptoms are mild cold-like symptoms,” he said.

Still, Carswell added, “It’s the worst-case scenario getting it inside the jail. We’re still overcrowded so that makes is a challenge to separate people.”

Carswell wasn’t certain exactly how many inmates had been tested, and added that the sheriff’s office couldn’t mandate that inmates be tested. “Not all of them agreed to a test,” he said.

Sullivan County jail’s capacity is 619. Carswell said it housed about 730 inmates over the weekend.

That number is still 200 lower than the inmate population at the end of January. Law enforcement personnel have booked fewer people into jail for non-violent offenses during the pandemic to try to ease overcrowding.

“The courts are working with us really well on that,” Carswell said.

Sullivan County is also having success with a pre-trial release program that it hopes can benefit participants and mitigate overcrowding even after the pandemic risk subsides.

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