The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is allowing jail employees who continue to test positive for coronavirus to return to work after a set time, under a new policy based on updated federal guidelines for health care professionals.
The symptom-based strategy for returning employees to work is a change from JSO’s previous testing-based strategy, which required corrections guards and other employees to test negative before returning to work.
“When I found out there were officers working that were positive, I just couldn't understand how that would be legal or ethical,” said one employee at the main jail in Downtown Jacksonville. She provided WJCT News with her employee identification but wished to remain anonymous because she fears losing her job.
Some of her coworkers were unable to obtain negative coronavirus test results after multiple attempts, and they were eventually told they could return to work because they are no longer believed to be contagious, she said.
She said the new policy was never formally communicated to employees.
“How about we’re informed about that before the positive guys came back and we didn't have to go through all this anxiety, agitation and being upset and causing the morale in the jail to be even lower than it is?” the employee said. “They could have been transparent about it, and then maybe everybody could have had a different reaction.”
The policy shift comes as Sheriff Mike Williams reported in early July that more than 50 corrections officers and “sworn personnel” had tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 180 of them in quarantine. WJCT News partner News4Jax reported on July 23 that 436 Duval County inmates had tested positive, while another 1,292 were potentially exposed.
WJCT News has requested the latest infection numbers from JSO, and this story will be updated when they are received.
JSO spokesman Christian Hancock declined an interview but emailed WJCT News a statement, which reads, in part: “In reference to COVID-19, these protocols are continuing to be updated based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. A testing-based strategy is no longer recommended by the CDC for health care professionals, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office follows these [health care professional] guidelines.”
The statement continues: “As such, JSO will not send employees to be tested as part of the standard COVID-19 response protocol.”
JSO did not say whether any employees are currently working while still testing positive for coronavirus.
The CDC’s symptom and timing-based guidelines say infected employees must isolate for 10 days after initial symptoms appear.
While someone who continues receiving positive tests might stop being contagious after a certain period of time, the CDC acknowledges that is not 100% confirmed and is based on “preliminary observations.”
Still, local experts say the guidelines make sense.
“The evidence is starting to mount that unless they have a really severe case which extends past symptoms, past 10 days... largely, the virus is done shedding,” said Chad Neilsen, the director of accreditation and infection prevention at UF Health Jacksonville.
“Our testing for COVID-19 is largely based on a test that looks for DNA fragments of COVID, dead or alive,” Neilsen said. “And so many of these people who are testing positive multiple times in a row but don't have symptoms, it's because their body hasn't gotten rid of the dead DNA still floating around in them, and the test is picking that up. So those people are not at risk to spread.”
The CDC says traces of coronavirus may be detected in upper respiratory specimens for up to 12 weeks.
In creating its guidelines for health care workers, the CDC cited a study that found “high-risk household and hospital contacts” did not develop infection if they were exposed to a COVID-19 patient at least six days after the illness’ onset.
The study of 285 “persistently positive” patients, which included 126 who had recurrent symptoms, found no secondary infections among 790 of their contacts, the guidelines note.
“Based on experience with other viruses, it is unlikely that such persons pose an important infectious risk to others. However, whether this is true for [COVID-19] infection has not been definitively established,” the guidelines also state.
The jail employee who spoke with WJCT News said because of that uncertainty, the change was hard to accept.
“I literally felt sick to my stomach, and kind of on top of being mad and agitated, I just kind of feel like they don't care because they just need to staff the jail,” she said.
Sky Lebron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.