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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattooga County Sheriff Mark Schrader talks to a resident during a hearing to announce a property tax increase and ask for citizens' input on Aug. 7, 2017, at the Chattooga County Civic Center in Summerville, Georgia.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:24 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, to correct the name of the contracted health care provider for the Chattanooga County jail, CorrectHealth.

Nearly all of the 15 full-time employees at the Chattooga County (Georgia) Jail have either tested positive for the coronavirus or are out sick with symptoms of the virus.

Sheriff Mark Schrader said Thursday morning that he has been scrambling to find employees from his department to cover shifts at the jail. He's even had to have administrative employees backfill for jail employees, he said.

"It's crazy," Schrader said. "It's the weirdest thing I've ever experienced."

As of Thursday, none of the estimated 38 inmates at the jail have been tested for COVID-19. The jail's contracted inmate medical provider, CorrectHealth, told Schrader this week they would not test inmates unless they were showing symptoms, he said.

"[CorrectHealth] does not see the need to test each inmate at this time," Schrader said. "I kind of would like to get them tested, so we've been trying to reach outside the box and find a way to do that."

Schrader said he has reached out to the local public health department but was told about wait times of "three to four weeks" for test results.

"I don't know if there's a need in doing that if the test results are going to be four weeks out," he said.

Schrader wasn't able to definitively say how many of his employees have tested positive and how many were showing symptoms. He said the employees either used urgent care centers or primary care physicians to get tested.

"We're at the point where we're rotating admins, [Criminal Investigation Division officers] and patrol [officers] working the jail on various shifts," he said. "I've always known we've got a good crew of employees, and during this time we've been pulling from everywhere having people work tons of extra shifts and nobody is griping or complaining. Everyone's just jumped in."

Schrader said several surrounding sheriffs have been in touch to offer help with his staffing problem. At this time Schrader is holding off on that, but said he will accept the help in a "worst-case scenario."

"Obviously we're trying to work on containment and isolation issues," he said. "Right now we're able to utilize our own personnel in an effort to not try to expose anyone that's not been exposed."

The number of coronavirus cases has been steadily rising in Chattooga County over the past week. The cases have affected high-profile members of the government and court system, including three judges.

Employees at the town of Trion forced the town hall there to close for a week, and two employees at the Summerville Recreation Center forced it to close for the time being.

Schrader said his department and others in the county are working to find out if there is any connection between the infections at the jail and other parts of the county.

In April, 345 people tested positive for COVID-19 at the County Correctional Complex in Pikeville, Tennessee, after testing 2,335 inmates. A few weeks later, a federal inmate who had been transferred from the Bledsoe County facility tested positive at the Hamilton County Jail. All staff and inmates were then tested in Hamilton County, and all of them were negative.

The Marshall Project and the Associated Press have been tracking inmate coronavirus cases and reported last week that 70,717 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic started. About 46,800 prisoners have recovered and 713 have died. Georgia ranks seventh among states with 26 inmate deaths. Tennessee has had four deaths.

CorrectHealth's headquarters in Atlanta did not return a voicemail and email seeking comment Thursday.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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