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COVID-19 Hits Fairfax, Virginia Juvenile Detention Center

The director of court services for the county’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, Robert Bermingham Jr., said that staff had been required to wear masks prior to the outbreak. But juvenile inmates were not required to do so because officials determined it was unnecessary, since all the juvenile residents had been isolated together for at least a two-week period before the pandemic began.

“Our kids were, for lack of a better term, isolated in the facility and hadn’t been exposed to the outside,” said Bermingham.

Since then, he insisted, all other precautions recommended by the state Health Department have been taken. Visitation has been suspended except for lawyers, probation officers and social workers. Staff and resident temperatures are checked periodically. Social distancing is enforced, hand sanitizer and spit guards are located throughout the six-unit center, and all units undergo additional cleanings to help prevent the spread of infection.

In addition, court hearings have been suspended, educational classes are held remotely and all the juveniles have been confined indoors.

But public defender Dawn Butorac expressed doubt about the rigor with which staff has followed these recommended precautions. “The kids are not going anywhere — even to court — so the only way it came in is from a staff member,” she said. “That would lead one to believe that the appropriate safety precautions are not being followed at the JDC.”

The outbreak began September 29, when a staff member reported testing positive for coronavirus. A memo sent to staff said a second unrelated staff case had also been verified. JDC employs 120 and houses nearly 30 youthful offenders. After notification of the first positive test, masks were issued to the juveniles, and the county Health Department began testing everyone at the facility.

But staff members said they were surprised that classes continued on October 1, 2020. JDC juveniles were being virtually schooled, but they were seated at computers in classrooms together. Bermingham said officials did not believe the students in the classes were exposed to the virus in any way because the staff and juveniles who initially reported symptoms and tested positive had all come from the same unit, which did not include those in classes. Those infected were isolated in a different part of the building from the general population.

“We didn’t think it was necessary to disrupt the rest of the program at that time,” said Bermingham.

It was also apparently unnecessary to publicly acknowledge the outbreak for another two days, until concerned staff members contacted the Washington Post on October 3. Over the next five days, while testing was completed, six more juveniles tested positive. All of the positive tests were confined to two of JDC’s six units. All of the units were placed in quarantine. One juvenile was treated at a hospital and returned to JDC, where all the infected inmates are now being treated.

The 121-bed facility, which opened in 1958, operates at just 25 percent capacity despite serving a large part of Northern Virginia with over 1.5 million residents not only in Fairfax County but also in Arlington County and the independent cities of Alexandria and Falls Church.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said in late October that he had discussed closing or repurposing the aging and under-utilized facility with Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Jeff McKay (D), who told him “the hill is steep” to reach a decision like that. 


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