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Authorities in Coffee County, Tennessee, say three cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in staff members at the sheriff's department who live together.

Two of the three staff members reported positive results May 26 and the third May 27, according to Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin.

"This is the first positive result[s] we have had with our department by either staff or inmate," Partin said. "These three employees share an apartment together. We have notified the remaining staff and have provided necessary information regarding testing."

Contact with the virus "originated from outside Coffee County," Partin said, but he didn't elaborate. Inmates have remained protected, he said.

Coffee County's jail is one of the region's newest — opening in 2015 with a capacity of 400 — so officials said in early April there was no reason to reduce the inmate population with just 306 in custody. That was when many jails in the Chattanooga region were reducing jail populations at the behest of judicial officials as the coronavirus pandemic gained momentum.

The population at the jail in Manchester on Tuesday stood even lower at 275, leaving 125 beds open, officials said.

"As of this date there have been no positive tests within the Coffee County Jail population," the sheriff said. He said all staff members are following all safety guidelines.

(VIEW OUR CORONAVIRUS TRACKER HERE)

As of Monday, state health department records show 74 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Coffee County out of 2,431 people tested, and 55 of those confirmed with the virus have recovered.

Coffee's confirmed case rate now stands at 135 per 100,000 in the population, which places it on the low end — but not the lowest — among its seven adjacent neighbors. Bedford County has more than four times that number with 618 positive cases per 100,000, Rutherford County's rate is 421 cases per 100,000, followed by a rate of 219 per 100,000 in Cannon, 218 in Grundy, 135 in Marion and 62 in Moore, according to state health reports this week.

The three staff members had few noticeable symptoms and the testing was done as a private decision, sheriff's office spokesman Frank Watkins said in an email.

"[T]he first employee was tested due to a family member testing positive and notifying them of the positive test, then the other two followed up with tests due to contact with the third staff member," Watkins said. "They are doing well with little effects from the infection. They are still following guidelines and under quarantine until released by medical [personnel] to return to work."

The confirmed cases did not trigger any mass testing of inmates at the facility.

"We are continuing to follow the recommendation regarding testing," Watkins said. "Inmates are tested on a case-by-case basis dictated by symptoms and if they have had contact with [someone with a] positive result.

"None of the staff that tested positive had contact with any inmates prior to being tested," he said. Testing among staff members is ongoing, Watkins said, "with staff members being advised where testing can be done."

Coffee County officials said the additional space from 125 empty beds allows inmates room for social distancing and officials room to quarantine inmates, if needed.

"We have had subjects come into booking and say they have been exposed," he said. "With the population as manageable as it is now, we have room to place them in quarantine while their tests are done."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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