Mecklenburg jail battered by its biggest surge yet of COVID-19 cases

A post-Thanksgiving pandemic wave has crashed into the Mecklenburg County jail, which has seen a 20-fold increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks that could further thwart the reopening of the state courts.

According to figures supplied by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to state and federal courts, the county’s Detention Center had zero cases of the disease as Nov. 18 and only three as of Nov. 23.

But that radically changed over the holiday weekend, a traditional period of heavy travel that health experts warned could set off a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

On Nov. 27, the day after the Thanksgiving, the number of cases had risen to 26. It grew to 32 as of Monday. By Wednesday, that number had doubled to 64.

As of Monday, according to the sheriff’s report shared with the courts, the jail had 169 inmates in quarantine.

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To date, North Carolina has had more than 373,000 cases of disease along with some 5,400 deaths.

It’s unclear whether the sheriff’s office or county health officials know the cause of the current jail outbreak.

Trials in gyms, cases delayed: With NC pandemic logjam, justice ‘slow as molasses’

In response to a series of Observer questions Thursday, Chief Deputy Rodney Collins said the jail “is working with its healthcare provider as test results continue to come in.”

Asked what safety measures the jail had put in place, Collins did not respond other than he expected the sheriff’s office to release an update by 2 p.m.

“We would like to be as accurate as possible,” he said.

‘A death on our hands’

The numbers of jail cases have renewed calls by those who say the local criminal justice system can and should do more to lessen the number of people confined in close jail quarters while the pandemic rages on.

In NC federal court, jittery attorneys want to know: Should we even be here?

“The dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County Jail screams out that a crisis is here,” said Charlotte attorney Tim Emry, one of the leaders of the #DecarcerateMecklenburg effort. “Without swift action by CMPD, magistrates, judges, and the district attorney’s office, we are going to have a death on our hands.

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“I remind the people of Charlotte that the overwhelming majority of people in the jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are simply too poor to buy their freedom. They are our neighbors, relatives, and friends. We should all care about their health and well being.”

As of Thursday morning, the jail held 1,441 inmates, all but 100 at its uptown site. More than half, around 850 in all, were awaiting trial. Forty-two inmates were booked Wednesday; 26 were released.

The current outbreak is the largest yet at the Fourth Street facility. In July, the jail reported 48 cases before quickly falling back.

Surge in jail COVID cases has inmates asking courts for help. One of them is pregnant.

According to the county health department, the jail has reported two deaths: a staffer and an inmate.

Havoc in the courts

The county’s criminal justice system have taken steps to reduce the jail population to protect against an outbreak of disease.

Judge moves to reduce arrests, prevent COVID-19 outbreak inside Mecklenburg’s jails

In March as the pandemic descended on Charlotte, the jail released dozens of inmates for safety reasons. Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch also suspended arrests for most misdemeanors to reduce the comings and goings inside the jail.

Still arrests have continued, and the jail’s population has resisted many of the efforts by judges and lawyers to shrink it. Meanwhile, the virus has played havoc with the courts in Mecklenburg and around the state.

First, the courts stopped jury trials and sharply reduced courthouse activity for almost nine months.

Earlier this month, when Mecklenburg held its first jury trial since March, the case ended in a mistrial due to repeated fears of juror exposure to the disease.

Meck’s first jury trial since March ends due to possible juror exposure to COVID-19

Now, the large number of inmates being quarantined means they can’t be brought to court or meet with their attorneys, says Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully.

While the quarantines are for safety reasons, they are also delaying hearing that could lead to an inmate’s release.

“It’s obviously a growing problem,” Tully said.

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