Central Texas jails try to hold off coronavirus spread as vaccine rollout inside remains uncertain

Williamson County

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Michelle Sweeney gets emotional when thinking about her husband. He’s currently behind bars in the Williamson County Jail, waiting for his trial.

“I really worry about him not getting the proper treatment, because they could die,” she said through tears. “Just because they are inmates doesn’t mean they don’t deserve medical attention. Proper medical attention at that.”

She’s heard some recorded calls circulating on social media, featuring inmates asking for help or complaining about the conditions inside. Her own husband told her he tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolated, but she’s afraid he’s only being treated with Tylenol for his symptoms.

Meanwhile, the chief deputy at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said they’ve been working hard to fight the spread of the virus in the jail. When newly-elected Sheriff Mike Gleason and his administration took office in January, they immediately reached out to the local health authority for guidance and began reaching out to other county jails to discuss their COVID-19 protocols.

“While there is no one entity for jails to turn to, and the science behind COVID-19 is evolving daily, we wanted to be as proactive as possible in our efforts to mitigate and respond to it as best we could,” Chief Deputy Ken Evans said.

He provided the most updated policies at the jail, including screening and quarantining new inmates, distributing KN95 masks to every inmate, a regular cleaning regimen and bi-monthly fogging of the housing units.

They had recently started checking inmates temperatures twice a day, but after KXAN began asking questions, they added checks of pulse oxygen levels for people who are COVID-19 positive — plus respiratory checks “as needed.” 

“Based on the [KXAN] inquiry we went back through our current protocols to see if there were other things we could do that may provide more timely identification of concerns prior to an inmate bringing it to our attention,” Evans said.

The policy he provided explains if an inmate expresses concern or if their condition appears to have worsened during these screenings, they will be “immediately referred or considered for medical response or transferred to a medical facility.”

Evans said in a statement to KXAN, “This action is performed as quickly as it is identified.”

In response to loved ones’ concerns about proper medication, Evan explained that medical officers distribute scheduled medications four different times a day. During those “medication passes,” inmates can request over-the-counter drugs, as well.

As of Tuesday, there were only four active cases reported to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at the Williamson County Jail — down from 20 early last week. There were seven jailers with active, positive tests.

Under the current guidelines, officers with the sheriff’s office can sign up on their own to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but the agency is not tracking that data. It’s a similar situation at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

  • Read more about the Travis County Jail here.

Still, there’s no estimation on when inmates will get access to the vaccine. Unlike some other states, Texas did not designate incarcerated populations as eligible for the vaccine.

According to a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, they’ve allocated more than 8,000 doses to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — intended for staff and incarcerated people who qualify under Phase 1A or 1B. There are more than 100,000 people in the system or working for TDCJ.

The spokesperson went on to say the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel was “still discussing” which populations would be included in the next phases of allocation.

In late January, a spokesperson for TDCJ was not able to tell KXAN if any inmates in the 1B category had been vaccinated yet — qualifying as 65 years or older or with underlying health conditions.

“Not everybody in there is in there for heinous crimes,” Sweeney emphasized.

A recent study by University of Texas at Austin researchers revealed 80% of Texas county jail inmates who died from COVID-19 had not been convicted of a crime and were awaiting trial. Another is 58% of people who died in Texas prisons from the coronavirus were eligible for parole, and nine people who died were approved but not released.

 Evan said at Williamson County, they encourage family members and loved ones to reach out with concerns, as they continue updating their protocols.

“The ability to combat the spread of COVID in such a confined space is very challenging, however we continue to do our best to be responsive and proactive when we can,” he said.

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