Court trip may have exposed Fulton County inmate to coronavirus

It's a case of coronavirus that may illustrate as well as anything the benefits of sheltering in place.

A Fulton County jail inmate was diagnosed with COVID-19.

The 38-year-old inmate has a chronic health condition, but had otherwise been fine as he had been behind bars on Rice Street for more than two months.

What changed?

"He had been with us since early January. He'd been in jail 77 days as of this past Sunday and had been doing well, other than his other underlying medical issues," says the jail's commander, Fulton County Sheriff's Colonel Mark Adger. "He had gone to court on March 9th, and then two or three days after that, he started complaining about a temperature."

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The man was immediately isolated in a negative-pressure cell.

Before complaining of any symptoms, the detainee had been on lockdown with one other person. That inmate has also been isolated, and has shown no signs or symptoms of infection, according to Col. Adger.

Adger says medical staff monitored the man, but his fever was not consistently responding to treatment. The man complained of body chills, and the fever began spiking by the 15th or 16th of March.

He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where tests confirmed COVID-19.

"He's been discharged from the jail, but he is still a patient at Grady Hospital," says Adger, who says the man was granted a $1,000 signature bond. The jail had already begun evaluating the cases of non-violent detainees to determine who might be eligible for early release in an effort to stem any chances of infection.

"I don't think there was a high risk of violence," he says. "He was charged with two drug offenses--both bondable offenses--and quite honestly, having someone in a jail setting with coronavirus in custody would pose probably more of a public health risk than otherwise."

Adger recently detailed the extraordinary steps the Fulton County Jail was taking to keep staffers and inmates safe. A jail that he said often won praise from visitors for its cleanliness had stepped up to an even stricter cleaning regimen. Staffers were greeted with questions about travel or any other possible exposure to the coronavirus.

A kitchen worker with a cold was sent home, not allowed to come in to work, out of an abundance of caution. Inmates were given the same series of questions before even leaving the transport vehicles, says Adger. The jail capped the capacity of its in-house court hearings, and cleaned the courtroom after every 10 inmates. In-house video visitation was stopped; visitation can only be done remotely now. They regularly disinfected the attorney booths and holding tanks with an electrostatic sprayer.

"The importance of the electrostatic part of the sprayer is that it turns the disinfectant into a mist, and that mist, with a negative charge, then sticks to everything it comes in contact with," explains Adger.

The colonel even ordered two infrared touchless thermometers via Amazon with his own money, with plans to donate them to the jail, so Fulton County could do a thorough job screening incoming people--including visitors to the public lobby and deputies--by checking their temperatures.

The regular procurement process would take weeks, he said, and he didn't want to wait. Plus, he needs at least seven of them--one for each entrance at all jail facilities.

Adger says he'd even stopped on-site roll call to keep deputies from congregating in small spaces.

No surprise, then, that with all the steps taken to protect the jail population and its staffers from COVID-19, Col. Adger was taken aback by the inmate falling ill.

"It was like a gut punch getting that first case," Adger tells WSB, "but I think we responded well. We looked at the procedures we use here in the jail; I don't think there was any lapse in procedure, especially when you consider that he had been here 77 days. So he couldn't have come in infected."

Adger says they have consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University to ensure they are using best practices to limit exposure--as well as reached out to their criminal justice contact to express a major concern.

"We need very little movement of prisoners between the jail and the courthouse during this time of the emergency, so we're working to do more video court and less in-person court hearings so that we don't jeopardize either the jail or the court system and their facilities," says Col. Adger.

A problem the jail had already been mulling over was what to do if an incoming detainee seemed to have or be at risk of the disease. Fulton County Jail holds about 2,850 inmates.

"How do we isolate someone for 14 days?" he wondered. "We just don't have the space."

The tier on which the 38-year-old inmate was living has been sanitized, and those who had or may have had contact with him before, during, and after his hearing trip to Fulton County courtroom 2-F have been alerted. Many have been urged to self-quarantine, says Adger, and it's a wait-and-see at this point.

"We have to protect this environment because we cannot sustain large numbers of employees or our criminal justice partners being waylaid by this," Adger says.

The first of the two touchless thermometers Adger ordered arrived Wednesday, and deputies began using it right away.

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