A crowded Middle River jail tries to stem COVID outbreaks as a third of inmates test positive

The Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton includes inmates from Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Augusta County and Waynesboro.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

More than a third of Middle River Regional Jail inmates and dozens of its employees — several hundred people total — have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past few weeks, forcing the jail to apply a tiered system to try to limit the spread in different sections. 

The National Guard and the Virginia Department of Health both have stepped in to respond to the outbreak, which has been exacerbated by the jail’s crowded conditions. So far, one inmate who tested positive was hospitalized but has since been released. 

But the spread of the virus has inmates’ family members worried, so much so that their calls have “overwhelmed” the local health department, according to the jail’s home page, which now directs concerned family members to call 877-ASK-VDH3 instead of the local office. And two inmates’ family members told The Citizen that they are particularly concerned that the overcrowding is fueling the outbreak. 

The jail has a total capacity of 902 inmates, and as of Dec. 4, had 834 people in custody — 308 of whom had tested positive for COVID, according to a press release the jail issued Friday. Inmates come from Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Augusta County, Waynesboro and Staunton, which share the facility’s operation costs. In total, 53 employees also have tested positive as well. 

“The majority of inmates who have tested positive have minimal or no symptoms,” Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, told The Citizen in an email. The health district was first contacted several weeks ago “about a small cluster of positive employees,” Kornegay said. 

The department provided guidance and additional testing to the jail, including rapid antigen testing cards.

The National Guard will test all remaining inmates and staff who have been COVID-negative on a weekly basis until all of those tests come back negative for two weeks.

“CDC recommendations are to not, in most instances, re-test persons who test positive” within three months, Kornegay said. She said the tests pick up viral RNA, and people who recently tested positive “can continue to have ‘dead’ virus detected well after their infectious period is over.” 

Jails, along with assisted living facilities, have been hotbeds for the spread of the virus because people are living, eating and breathing in close proximity — often without the ability to remove and quarantine exposed persons from the rest of the population. 

“We really don’t have the space to move every positive inmate to an isolation area,” Major Eric Young, director of operations at the jail, told The Citizen. 

Instead, Middle River officials worked out a three-tiered plan with the health department to address how widespread the virus is in different housing sections of the jail: 

  • For housing areas that have a high percentage of positive cases, those inmates are self-isolated. Even if inmates test negative in those pods, they are not moved because the Virginia Department of Health “said once you’re exposed, you’re exposed,” Young said.
  • In housing areas that have just a few positive cases, those COVID-positive inmates are moved to a different section — a separate “temporary” area for a 10-day quarantine. 
  • In areas in which all the inmates have tested negative over the past few weeks, those inmates are isolated from the rest of the jail population. That has been the case for 10 housing areas, which account for about 350-400 people. Young said the hope is that the virus won’t infiltrate those parts of the facility.

Kornegay said the health department has worked with officials to account for the difficulty in being able to quarantine inmates. 

“Like most jails, MRRJ often operates above capacity. The lack of space does limit the ability to cohort patients into isolation and quarantine groups,” Kornegay said. “They are working closely with the criminal justice system to try to reduce the inmate population during the outbreak.”

Young said that the inmates have been wearing masks, washing their hands and cleaning the jail thoroughly.

“It’s really been an effort all the way around: inmates, staff, and all,” Young said. “The jail’s working real hard at trying to contain the virus … [although] I know family members and friends who have people incarcerated are upset, and it’s stressful.” 

Young said one COVID-positive inmate has been hospitalized, although he said wasn’t sure if the man needed medical care for the virus or other health issues. That person was bonded out from the hospital, Young said.

Young said that jail officials have been “looking at each [inmate’s] situation, and talking with the courts and talking with the judges and the commonwealth” to try and release more people. Inmates who are exposed to the virus and then released are enrolled in the health department’s contact tracing program.

‘Just a bad situation’

Terri Landes Shifflett has been worried for her son, Floyd Shifflett, who’s currently incarcerated at Middle River. She told The Citizen that he tested negative during Thanksgiving week, but is in one of the housing areas with a high positivity rate, so he was not moved. This week, he tested positive. 

“It’s hard, but … he’s 31, he’s in pretty good shape, I think he’ll be okay,” Shifflett said. “He hasn’t had any symptoms.”

Shifflett said she is concerned that the jail might not be enforcing mask-wearing — a concern some family members of inmates at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail also have shared

She also said she’s worried the virus could be spread on the surface of jail phones, which inmates often wait one after another to use. And she views the backlogged courts as a hindrance to getting inmates released.

“It’s just a bad situation,” Shifflett said. And while she acknowledged that her son made mistakes to end up in jail, “if he was out here, he might not have had COVID.” 

Christie Davis is also a mother of an inmate: Kayne Haldeman. Davis was worried about crowding at the jail well before the pandemic.

“Capacity levels are supposed to be in place for safety and fire reasons,” Davis told The Citizen in an email. “If it was a restaurant or an apartment building, I feel fire marshals would be all over it with fines and possible closures.”

Part of a surge

Kornegay said the outbreak at Middle River reflects a general surge in cases in both the area and Virginia as a whole. She said local health care systems face increasing challenges with increased hospitalizations and ICU admissions for COVID patients. 

At the same time, those health care facilities must battle the virus spread and exposure among their staffs, “which makes operations more difficult as cases increase,” she said.

She urged local residents to follow public health guidelines, including staying home for the holidays and celebrating only with immediate family who live in the same household.

“We are actively working with community partners on vaccine efforts, which will be the treatment that will help to end the pandemic,” Kornegay said. “In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to avoid overwhelming our health care systems with additional cases.”

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