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'We try to be as safe as we can': How COVID-19 hit the Bibb County Sheriff's Office hard

The COVID-19 rate in the Bibb County Sheriff's Office has been around 3x higher than for the rest of the county

MACON, Ga. — This report has been contributed by Lars Lonnroth with Mercer University's Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Public records obtained by WMAZ and the CCJ show that around 15% of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office has tested positive for coronavirus.

That’s 78 positive COVID-19 tests between March to October – almost 1:6 employees.

The office employs around 500 in both law enforcement and other roles.

Over that same time period, 4.5% of people living in Macon-Bibb County tested positive for COVID-19. That’s about a ratio of 1:22.

This means the spread in the sheriff’s office was about three times higher than for the rest of Macon-Bibb County.

Based on sheriff’s office records and interviews with department leaders, we found:

  • The virus hit the Bibb County jail staff hardest.
  • Some officers were exposed to COVID-19 on the job – for example, during an investigation at a nightclub.
  • Others apparently passed the virus along at large social gatherings this spring and summer.
  • The pandemic also made staffing problems worse, forcing the department to juggle roles and shuffle staff.

The spread in the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office underscores the added risk law enforcement faces while patrolling the streets during the coronavirus pandemic.

“For a while, it was running pretty strong through the office,” said Bibb County Sheriff David Davis. “We get a list every day, and there'd be, you know, 10 or 12 or 20 people on it during the summer. That was like when we were right in the middle of the storm.”

While the pandemic hit his office across the board, Davis estimated that two-thirds of his jail deputies had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We had to do some revamping of how we were doing things in the jail,” said Tonnie Williams, major in charge of corrections.

That meant new procedures and staffing shifts at the jail.

The corrections department had to navigate the new CDC regulations, Williams said.

The jail designated cell blocks to quarantine new inmates for 14 days to prevent coronavirus cases from outside the jail entering the general inmate population. They also assigned other blocks to isolate inmates who’d tested positive.

“There wasn’t a 14-day quarantine period for individuals being arrested in the jail (before the coronavirus),” Williams said. “We had to create those things in order to accommodate it for male inmates as well as female inmates.”

The Bibb County jail employs around 160, Williams said. At the peak of COVID-19, they had around 750 inmates, but they can hold up to 1,000, he said.

According to Williams, jail officials worked with the 32 nurses and doctors who work inside the jail to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

“By the time we had our first case, we were already meeting,” he said.

Despite dozens of cases among the staff, Williams says the spread among inmates has been minimal. All employees are required to wear masks at work and inmates can purchase face coverings at the commissary, Williams said.

“When you’re running 700 individuals on a daily basis, it would be a challenge to be able to pass out 700 masks every day,” he said.

Davis says less than a dozen inmates contracted COVID-19, partly due to “rigorous screening and isolation practices.”

The spread among jail employees, however, still affected staffing.

“It had its challenges during the peak when we had the majority of our employees testing positive,” Williams said.

But he noted that many deputies begin their career at the sheriff’s office as corrections guards. That made it easier to shift resources to keep the jail covered.

“Virtually everyone knows how to work in the jail, so they were temporarily reassigned to the jail while those individuals were out recovering from COVID,” Williams said.

He believes most of the staff spread happened outside the jail.

“It was pretty apparent that most of these individuals did not contract the virus from within the facility,” Williams said. “We did not have a mass spread among one squad, where if you had 20 people working and you end up with 15 of them contracting the virus.”

As a result of COVID-19, the jail has also had to suspend in-person visits from family members and lawyers, moving those to Zoom. They also suspended their GED program, which helps inmates get their education.

Williams said all of this fits into the broader goal of reducing spread within the jail by limiting foot traffic. Also, inmates spend around 22 hours a day in their cell during the pandemic.

Davis said the early cases among the jail staff may have slowed the spread since this summer. Williams said that they have not had a new case in six to eight weeks.

“Now, I won't go on a limb and say this is an example of this concept of herd immunity or not, but we have noticed there was a lot of our jail deputies have caught it and now it's kind of dwindled down to where we don't have very many at all that that have it,” Davis said.

“In our business...you just can’t socially distance"

Nationwide, at least 138 law enforcement officials have died of COVID-19 infections directly linked to on-duty service, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which tracks on-duty law enforcement deaths. In Georgia, six law enforcement officials have died of COVID-19 infections caught while on-duty.

On-duty spread has also happened in Bibb County, Davis said. One deputy caught COVID-19 after retrieving surveillance video at a nightclub where a shooting happened.

But Davis said he thinks they’ve been able to keep the spread in check through increased cleaning.

Law enforcement is at higher risk for COVID-19, partly due to the public nature of their work. Their job also requires deputies to come in close contact with others, such as placing someone under arrest, Davis said.

In a COVID-19 fact sheet, the CDC recommends that law enforcement officials maintain social distancing when possible, practice proper hand hygiene and wear appropriate PPE when in contact with people who have or may have the virus.

“In our business, there are instances where you just can’t socially distance,” Davis said. “You have to be hands-on, but we try to be as safe as we can.”

Davis also blames some of the COVID-19 spread in his office to off-the-clock activities. That includes some cases among workers at the jail, which they traced to after-work parties and gatherings.

Davis says his office hasn’t heard of any other recent large gatherings among staffers since the spring and early summer.

“I think everybody kind of wisened up since then,” he said.

He also confirmed that COVID-19 has made his office’s staffing struggles worse, particularly this summer.

In June last year, Davis told WMAZ that the Sheriff’s Office was struggling to fill 100 deputy positions.

“If you’re already short a number of deputies and then you add another 10 or 11 that are out facing COVID, it does put a strain on you,” Davis said. “But those who were here stepped up to the plate, [and] worked extra hours to get the job done.”

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