Photo by Austin Garrett, Chief Deputy Hamilton County Sheriff's Department / The 2nd floor of the Hamilton County Jail, which usually houses 120 inmates, is empty. With the COVID-19 pandemic the jail population has decreased.

Since April, 70 inmates and personnel have tested positive for COVID-19 between both Hamilton County-owned correctional facilities.

In response to earlier reporting by the Times Free Press about the known but incomplete number of cases of the virus within the Silverdale Detention Facility and Hamilton County Jail, both in Chattanooga, Sheriff Jim Hammond addressed the county commission on Wednesday.

After being asked by District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe to explain the "kind of alarming" 48 cases reported by the Times Free Press, which reflected Silverdale employees and all inmates year to date, Hammond suggested the numbers were "misleading" before introducing an even higher number of cases, and concluding the total was "very low."

"We have had a total [inaudible] of 60 active cases over the last few months. The one or two that are going on now are either asymptomatic or they are coming off of quarantine," Hammond said. "We've had another probably 10-12 officers between the two."

"If you're talking about a total population of 13, 14, 15 hundred prisoners and several hundred officers, that's a very low number," he added, though combined inmate count as of Wednesday afternoon was 1,131.

By the numbers

Hamilton County Jail (Year To Date)

COVID-19 Positive: (19) Inmates

COVID-19 Positive: (18) Personnel

Silverdale Detention Facility (Year To Date)

COVID-19 Positive: (20) Inmates

COVID-19 Positive: (13) Personnel

The numbers reflect a much smaller number of currently active cases among both inmates and personnel as of Wednesday.

Hamilton County Jail (Current)

COVID-19 Positive: (4 ) Inmates

COVID-19 Positive: (1) Personnel

Silverdale Detention Facility (Current)

COVID-19 Positive: (0) Inmates

COVID-19 Positive: (1) Personnel

To clarify numbers provided by the county last week and the sheriff's estimate, the paper then requested a new breakdown of active and total cases at each facility by both inmates and personnel. Those numbers from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office show 70 total cases since the jail's first mass testing on April 8, with six active as of Wednesday afternoon.

"In the grand scheme of things, it is not what it appears to be, that this is some huge problem that's going on," Hammond said. "It's a problem just to have one [case], but we've had no deaths, we've had no serious sickness from it."

Though Wednesday's was the first full count of inmate and personnel cases at both facilities provided to the Times Free Press, sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea told the paper that the office never intended to withhold information on cases.

Lea added that, while the case count changes frequently, the county has a consistent response to a positive result within the jail.

"It is important to note that COVID-19 numbers change throughout the week. If an inmate or corrections staff are diagnosed with or exposed to someone with COVID-19, they will be placed in quarantine and tested," Lea wrote Wednesday. "However, just because an inmate is placed in quarantine, does not necessarily mean they are showing symptoms or been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. For example, any inmate who has to be transferred to another facility must be tested and quarantined prior to transfer whether they are showing symptoms or not."

While Hammond told the commission that less than a fraction of a percent of inmates will ask for or wear a mask, and that the county isn't going to "make them do anything they don't want to do," Lea explained that the sheriff's office follows specific quarantining and personal protective equipment protocol to manage and prevent the virus within the jail.

"Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Corrections personnel continue to work diligently with Health Department officials and Erlanger personnel to ensure we are providing a safe, healthy environment for our employees and the inmates we are charged to protect," he wrote. "This includes wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), issuing masks to inmates, routinely taking temperatures, and following established medical best practices and guidelines to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19."

"For those who have been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19, HCSO Corrections personnel work with Health Department staff and our contracted medical services provider [Erlanger Medical Center] to track all inmates and personnel who may have come into contact with those diagnosed with COVID-19. This includes quarantine practices when necessary."

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