FAYETTEVILLE -- The Washington County jail has seen a recent spike in the number of detainees testing positive for covid-19.
Forty-two detainees in the jail have tested positive for the virus, Sheriff Jay Cantrell told the Quorum Court's County Services Committee on Monday. The jail is designed to hold 709 inmates. On Monday, there were 808 being held.
Cantrell was speaking to the justices of the peace about his plans to implement or again open a number of programs at the jail, including a GED program and a 12-step program, and opening a separate pod for detainees who are also veterans so they can receive services geared toward them.
He said having a higher number of detainees who have tested positive for covid complicates his efforts to find space for the programs.
Cantrell said the need to separate and isolate detainees with covid and take steps to lessen the likelihood the virus will spread to other detainees reduces the amount of space available at the jail.
The number of new cases reported in Arkansas declined from January through June, but the state saw an increase in July of 2,064 cases, up from 1,724 cases in June, according to information from the Health Department.
As of Tuesday, there were no detainees in the Benton County jail testing positive for covid, according to Lt. Shannon Jenkins with the Benton County sheriff's office.
Kelly Cantrell, public information officer for the Washington County sheriff's office, said the jail hadn't relaxed its covid-prevention protocols even when the number of cases was declining.
"Everyone who comes in, if we're going to house them, they get tested," Cantrell said. "We also ask covid protocol questions of everyone who comes into the facility, and, if they fail those or if they have symptoms, they are tested."
Cantrell said information gathered by the sheriff's office shows there were 119 detainees who had been exposed to covid as of Jan. 1, and 23 of those tested positive. That number was the high count for the first six months of the year.
On April 1 and again May 15 and June 1 jail records show no detainees had been exposed to the virus and none had tested positive. On June 15, the records show one detainee had been exposed and one had tested positive.
On July 1, jail records show no detainees had been exposed and no positive test results were reported. On July 15 jail records show 104 detainees had been exposed and two tested positive. On July 31, the records show 461 detainees had been exposed and 42 tested positive.
Cantrell said the tests aren't 100% accurate, and people who are in the early stages of the virus may not display symptoms or test positive.
A lawsuit now pending in federal court contends detainees were given ivermectin as part of a covid treatment plan as early as November 2020 and didn't become aware of what the treatment was until July 2021.
Ivermectin is an FDA-approved drug to address parasitic infestations such as intestinal worms and head lice and some skin conditions, such as rosacea. It isn't -- and wasn't at the time -- approved to treat covid-19.
Plaintiffs in the case include Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Jeremiah Little, Julio Gonzales, Thomas Fritch and Dayman Blackburn. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last year against Dr. Robert Karas, Karas Correctional Health, former Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder and the Washington County jail.
According to the National Institutes of Health, most covid symptoms are mild and can be treated with over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. More serious cases can be treated with prescription antiviral medications.
Dr. Marti Sharkey, Fayetteville's public health officer, said the increase in cases in the jail is concerning because people being detained have less control over factors that may affect their health and should be taken care of. She added the spike in cases at the jail isn't an isolated outbreak.
"It's happening nationwide, not just in Arkansas or in Northwest Arkansas," Sharkey said.
Sharkey said most people currently have some degree of immunity, either through covid vaccines or natural immunity through having had covid. She said people can't rely on that immunity for protection.
"As time goes on, our immunity does wane," she said. "The question is is this is due to our having less immunity or to a new strain? We haven't seen an uptick in hospitalizations or deaths, but those are lagging indicators. We all need to watch it. We all need to get the new covid vaccine this fall when we get our flu shots. We need to keep up our 'herd immunity,' and we all need to do our part."
Covid-related jail plans
Washington County is working on plans to enlarge the jail to enable the Sheriffs Office to better handle covid-19 or other easily communicable diseases. The Quorum Court has appropriated about $18 million for the project. After bids on the project came in almost $7 million above the budgeted amount, county officials began looking for ways to reduce the size of the project. The original plans include some new housing space as well as expanding the jails intake area and medical space. Other parts of the expansion include space for jail administration, enlarging the courtroom at the jail and adding storage space.
Source: Washington County