Unlike state prisons, Gov. Bill Lee has not yet mandated COVID-19 testing in county jails, including Sumner County. FILE

More than a week after Gov. Bill Lee announced that all Tennessee state prison inmates would be tested for COVID-19, one woman wants to know why local jails like Sumner County’s aren’t testing their inmates for the highly contagious disease.  

Anita Morris-Geoffrion says she received a call from a Sumner County inmate on May 2 who told her he had been running a fever for two days and had a sore throat. She says the inmate was eventually treated for a cold, but was never tested for COVID-19. 

“They have no masks, they’re not given any sanitation supplies, and apparently they’re not even tested for COVID-19,” said Morris-Geoffrion, who didn’t want to say how she knew the inmate for fear he would be retaliated against. “They should be testing everybody like the prisons and the nursing homes are. Or at the very least they should test those who are running a fever.”

Lee’s announcement on May 1 came after 1,224 inmates and 22 staff tested positive for the disease at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville. In early April, nearly 600 inmates at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in East Tennessee received positive diagnoses.

Correctional and detention facilities face challenges in controlling the spread of infectious diseases because of crowded, shared environments and potential introductions by staff members and new intakes, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. 

The Sumner County Jail currently houses 564 inmates, according to Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley. 

“Since the known COVID-19 pandemic, the jail administration has referred 111 inmates to the various courts for early release, but I cannot tell you which court has released what number of inmates and for what reason,” he said. “Only those inmates that were close to completing their incarceration or those few who had severe health issues have been released, to my knowledge.”

When asked on Friday why jail inmates were not being mass tested for COVID-19 like prison inmates, Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford said that while the Tennessee Department of Corrections is requiring prisons to test inmates, it did not make the same requirement of county jails. 

Weatherford said that the jail’s health care provider, Southern Health Partners, tested a few inmates who showed symptoms of COVID-19 early on, but didn’t say how many.

According to Weatherford, jail officials have been taking precautions since the second week of March to protect inmates and staff like shutting down the facility to visitors and quarantining any new inmates for 14 days in a separate cell before bringing them into the general population. 

A corrections officer who worked in the jail’s quarantine pod tested positive for COVID-19 on April 13. The employee experienced minor symptoms of the disease and was quarantined at a local hotel. 

Nine other jail employees who worked with the affected employee were tested and quarantined as well. 

Weatherford said at the time that the employee who tested positive was around jail inmates, he wore protective PPE. He said no inmates tested positive for COVID-19, but it wasn’t clear how many were actually tested. 

Weatherford said that his department has followed screening and cleaning protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When asked on Friday about Morris-Geoffrion’s claim that symptomatic inmates aren’t being tested, Weatherford said he received an email from Southern Health Partners earlier in the day.

“As of today, no one has showed a fever according to them,” he said. “They have a doctor who comes in – and nurses are in the jail 24-hours-a-day. No one has showed any COVID-19 symptoms.”

When asked if jail inmates would receive the same testing as prison inmates, Tennessee Department of Health Director of Communications Shelley Walker responded the following via email on May 6: 

“At this time, we are prioritizing testing at all state correctional facilities,” she said. “We are testing inmates at county jails if there are concerns about symptomatic individuals or confirmed cases within their staff or inmate population.”

When asked again on May 11 if inmates in county jails would be mass tested for COVID-19, Walker referred a reporter to the governor’s COVID-19 Unified Command. 

“I understand they are in discussions with the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association about this,” she said. 

An email to a COVID-19 Unified Command spokesperson was not returned by this newspaper’s deadline. 

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