Two positive cases involving people who work at the Woodbine courthouse complex without masks have set off concerns that other staff members were exposed.
The Camden County Courthouse was closed on Friday, June 19, due to a positive case involving a state employee, but it reopened the following Monday morning as scheduled after a weekend of thorough cleaning. Some employees were quarantined due to that case.
A week later, on Friday, June 26, an employee of the Camden County Sheriff’s Office tested positive for COVID-19. Although this person interacted with staff in the county’s administrative, court and jail offices, none of those buildings were closed due to that case.
However, it did prompt a decision for the Government Services Complex (historic courthouse building) to dial back its reopening posture to stage 2, said Steve Howard, county administrator, during a phone interview last week. The county had been at stage 3 after the initial shutdown of county offices due to the pandemic, but had since returned to a more normal stage 1 in recent weeks.
Under stage 2 operations, customer services areas remain open with minimum staff, while all others will be encouraged to work remotely from home until further notice.
The National Guard visited the complex early this week to conduct COVID-19 testing of the sheriff’s office staff and inmates. According to Camden County Emergency Management Director Chuck White, that request was made prior to current cases, but the timing was helpful, based on those circumstances.
The Georgia National Guard made an initial pass through the state to disinfect long-term care facilities, which included Camden, and correctional facilities are now their focus.
White said jails are an area of concern because inmates not only interact with each other and staff within the jail, but also interact with the judicial system.
“There is a lot of cross pollinating,” White said.
The test was supposed to be mandatory for sheriff’s office employees and voluntary for inmates. Capt. Larry Bruce said this week that the National Guard only brought 60 test kits, which was not enough to test everyone.
“The National Guard has not been able to provide a schedule of when they will return to continue testing of employees and inmates,” Bruce said. “However, since the health department here in Woodbine will start testing next Monday, Sheriff (Jim) Proctor will have the remaining untested employees examined at the health department.
“Sheriff Proctor is attempting to have the inmates, wanting to be tested for the virus, examined either by the health department, or National Guard, at the jail in the very near future.”
To date, the sheriff’s office has refused to house two inmates who failed temperature checks upon entering the jail.
“Any temperature over 99.5 is questionable. Temperature exceeding the 99.5 degree are again taken two other times, with a five-minute interval between temperature checks to insure the reading is correct,” Bruce said.
Bruce emphasized those who are dangerous or have felony charges will not be released, but quarantined until they can have a bond hearing.
“The two that did not get booked into the facility were arrested by municipal law enforcement agencies for minor violations, which a written citation could have been given summoning them to court at a later date,” he said.
Masks or no masks?
According to Bruce, the sheriff’s office did not have a policy requiring employees to wear masks.
“Most of (the deputies) do have a mask and will wear them at a crime scenes and (when interacting with the public),” he said.
However, Bruce said the sheriff may consider some changes due to the result of this week’s testing.
There have been no reported cases of inmates testing positive for COVID-19, but jail staff will provide them with masks if requested, Bruce said.
While the Camden County Courthouse, Government Services Complex (historic courthouse building) and the Camden County Public Safety Complex all interact as part of the local government, they are governed by three autonomous entities — the state judicial system, county administration and sheriff’s office.
Howard said county administrative employees are required to wear masks, but he has no control over constitutional officers and their policies. Additional guidance from the governor’s office on that issue would be helpful when it comes to slowing further spread of the virus, Howard said.
In Nassau County, Florida, just south of Camden, the city of Fernandina Beach has implemented a voluntary mask order and the mayor said it could become mandatory if compliance is low. Those measures are not in consideration for Camden.
“I don’t think we have the authority to do that, based on the governor’s order,” Howard said.
Some stronger guidance from the state would be helpful in sending the message that masks should be worn, he added.
Echoing Howard, Camden’s EMA director said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will not allow local governments to deviate in any way from his executive order, which is to relax COVID-19 measures and re-open the state. Unfortunately, that creates some of the inconsistency between agencies and jurisdictions that interact with one another.
“You have to have consistency in application of authority. It makes it difficult to have a standardized approach,” White said. “Yes, that’s a challenge.”
Despite the prevailing legal interpretation that local rules cannot be enacted, the mayor of Savannah ordered last week that masks are now mandatory in that city. As of press time Wednesday, the governor had taken no actions to overturn that local order.
As of 3 p.m. Thursday, July 2, Camden County had 147 confirmed cases to date, including two fatalities, according to the health department.
Members of the general public can get a free COVID-19 test from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Mondays at Mary Lee Clark Elementary School. No appointment is needed; just walk or drive up. A health district hotline — (912) 230-9744 — is available 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays for those who have questions about COVID-19.
Southeast Georgia Health System is also operating a COVID-19 screening hotline at (912) 466-7222. Those who suspect they may have the virus or are exhibiting symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath are urged to call ahead before visiting the emergency room.