Georgia Jails Faulted in Struggle With High COVID-19 Infection Rates
by Kevin W. Bliss
Nearly all of Georgia’s 159 counties struggled with medium to high levels of COVID-19 infections, especially in county jails. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published on August 22, 2022, blamed a laissez-faire approach to pandemic precautions.
No state or local law required Georgia’s jails to follow any protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. State health officials offered recommendations, but nothing more, urging jail officials to follow guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over nearly three years of the pandemic, the state’s jails suffered an inordinate rate of infection, extreme staffing shortages, lack of proper documentation, plus a failure to comply with those CDC recommendations.
For the investigation, questionnaires were distributed to 142 Georgia counties (89% of the total), asking about jail infection and death tolls, compliance with CDC recommendations, testing and vaccination, as well as distribution and use of protective equipment. More than half of jails failed or refused to respond. Of the 69 that did, many did not keep records of infection rates, hospitalizations, or deaths — even though infections were required to be reported to the state’s Public Health Department.
The results from counties where records could be obtained revealed more than 6,900 detainees and 2,300 employees were infected with COVID-19. Of those, 39 detainees and 73 employees were hospitalized. Six detainees and 27 employees died from the disease.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed suit against Clayton County Jail and then-Sheriff Victor Hill in July 2020, seeking an injunction requiring beefed-up protections from the disease. Though 102 detainees and more than a dozen employees had tested positive for the disease by August 2020, the federal court for the Northern District of Georgia denied that injunction on Christmas Eve that year. See: Jones v. Hill, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 242242 (N.D. Ga.).
Other problems contributed to the state’s infection rate, the nation’s fifth highest. Many jails failed to test or vaccinate detainees. Many infected detainees were not properly isolated. Staffing shortages added to the problems. Walker County Jail reported 61 employees out with COVID-19 from a staff of 120 in one month during the pandemic. Sheriff Steve Wilson estimated less than half of his employees had been vaccinated, along with about 30% of detainees.
The onset of the pandemic saw many counties proactively trying to reduce overall jail population. The total number of people held in Georgia jails dropped 27% between March and June 2020. But this trend did not last long; numbers are now higher than before the pandemic. The number of county jails exceeding capacity in the state doubled from 14 to 28 within six months in 2022.
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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