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Roanoke jail undertakes mass testing for COVID-19 among inmates, staff

Roanoke jail undertakes mass testing for COVID-19 among inmates, staff

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The Roanoke City Jail launched mass testing for all 389 inmates in its care Friday after facing a string of COVID-19 diagnoses.

The widespread testing was recommended by the health department after 14 staffers and four inmates tested positive for the novel coronavirus, officials said.

The city jail, which saw the cases unfold over the past month, had until now only done testing for those who were symptomatic or had been exposed.

Officials said that practice was consistent with CDC guidelines but a broader assessment was prudent now given the recent diagnoses and rising numbers generally in the state.

“The health and safety of those in our care and our staff remain a top priority,” read a statement issued by the Roanoke Sheriff’s Office.

“This preemptive testing approach will help identify asymptomatic individuals, and provide us with better information in order to manage the spread of COVID-19 in our facility.”

Inmates were offered testing Friday with results expected back in one to two days, on average, officials said.

Staff members and outside contractors would be tested, as well, over the next week. The virus around the jail was first detected in deputies who were flagged during daily screenings required when they report for work.

The 14 employee cases diagnosed to date reflect nearly 7% of Sheriff Tim Allen’s staff. Next week’s mass testing will include all workers who come into contact with the jail or the office’s administrative areas, officials said.

The jail indicated it hasn’t determined whether it will continue doing wider testing beyond the current point-in-time assessment.

Those decisions will be made in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health as the facility keeps working to halt the outbreak, said a spokeswoman.

The sheriff’s office said it follows a multi-part safety plan and will continue doing so. That includes setting masking requirements and screening all who come through its doors.

New inmates go through health screenings, officials said, and are quarantined for 14 days before moving to a housing pod.

Dr. Molly O’Dell, who’s leading the pandemic fight for the Roanoke Health District, confirmed her department was aiding in the response to one outbreak at a group facility. The department isn’t allowed to identify specific facilities, she said. The jail publicly disclosed its cases earlier this month.

O’Dell said the site had been working closely with the health department both in the current response and in safety planning talks in the months since the start of the pandemic.

“They continue to be very cooperative and want to do the right thing, for sure,” she said.

The round of mass testing will help officials decide how to proceed as they work to prevent exposure and spread of the virus.

The jail said statistics from its testing will be shared with the public once the results are in hand. An outbreak case is considered cleared if no new cases occur for four weeks.

None of the cases in the city jail to date required hospitalizations, said a spokeswoman, but officials can’t release more details about individual cases or symptoms.

The sheriff’s office is working to set up a page on its website where the public can submit questions or concerns about COVID-19 measures in the jail.

That is expected to be up early next week. Questions and comments also can be submitted by phone from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays at (540) 853-1761.

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