SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The Hays County Jail is dealing with a coronavirus outbreak among inmates that started with just one positive case in the last couple of weeks, and has now grown to 51.

Lt. Dennis Gutierrez with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office said since testing began in the jail, 115 inmates have volunteered to be tested which is about a third of the total jail population. Of those, 51 tests came back negative, 40 inmate tests came back positive and results for 24 people are still pending. Of the current positive cases, 36 are still currently housed at the jail.

Hays County Jail
Hays County Jail in San Marcos

Sheriff Gary Cutler told KXAN Wednesday 11 staff members have tested positive as well, and are currently at home in quarantine. He said they make up about 10% of all jail employees.

Cutler said it all started with one inmate testing positive who was in a dorm area with other inmates.

Since then medical staff at the jail have been doing nasal swab tests of more inmates, but Cutler said the results have been slow to come back. The jail is sending tests to two different labs, and Cutler said both are backed up. The turnaround time is between three to five days.

“You can get tested and 30 minutes later you might be infected, ” said Cutler who was also tested. “It came back negative obviously, but I may be the next day exposed somewhere so that’s a concern because you can do the test right at this very moment and we don’t get the results for five days that’s a lot of time — a lot could happen in five days.”

Most inmates not wearing masks

Sheriff Culter said random temperature checks are happening in the jail along with routine cleaning of housing and common areas. He said masks are being offered to all inmates, but most are choosing not to wear one.

“All of the officers wear their protective equipment, but the inmates, I was checking yesterday and I was looking at the video screen in the day room and nobody was wearing a mask, but that’s something we cannot control.”

These are the jail procedures the Hays County Sheriff’s Office says are in place to limit COVID-19 exposure in the jail:

  • All inmates are given masks upon arrival in the jail. If they refuse to take a mask or refuse to wear it, the staff can not make them do so. If they lose theirs, one will be replaced within a reasonable time.
  • Random temperature checks are done daily. If an inmate shows an elevated temperature or are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, they will be offered a test.
  • A cleaning cart is delivered daily to the inmates so that they can clean the living quarters if they wish.
  • Twice a day, corrections officers enter the housing units and clean the common areas of the unit.
  • Once a week, all inmates are removed from their housing units and correction officers sterilize the entire unit, common areas and individual living areas.

Protesters call for the release of inmates

Karen Munoz organized a drive-by protest that happened outside the Hays County commissioner’s court meeting Tuesday. A caravan of drivers honked their horns to be heard inside the building while the meeting was going on.

“What we’re asking is they release as many people as possible and use whatever mechanisms to do so,” said Munoz.

Munoz said she’s had numerous family members incarcerated in the past, and has been fighting for inmates’ rights for years.

“My main fear is the same fear we all have about coronavirus, right? Death,” said Munoz.

Hays County Commissioner Mark Jones told KXAN it is up to the courts to decide how it wants to handle the release of inmates waiting for cases to move through the system.

Sheriff Cutler said district judges decided to release close to 100 inmates in March or April due to the pandemic, before the jail had any positive cases.

“I don’t want the public and the citizens of Hays County to think I’m just holding these people here, being the mean ‘ole sheriff because it’s not the case,” said Cutler. “Documents have to come from our courts.”

KXAN has reached out to Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau to find out if there are plans to release more inmates.

KXAN reported in May how Travis County stopped taking Hays County inmates due to COVID-19.

KXAN Investigator Erin Cargile will have a full report on KXAN News at 9 and 10 p.m.