6 Wayne County sheriff's staff test positive for COVID-19

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Six employees of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a memo from the office.

In the memo, sent Sunday to staff, Robert Dunlap, chief of jails and courts for the sheriff's office, reported that four officers and two nurses had tested positive for the deadly virus.

Coronavirus had killed 15 in Michigan as of Monday morning, up from nine as of late Sunday night. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is now 1,232. Nationwide, there have been more than 35,000 infections and 400 deaths.

Reggie Crawford, 65, president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriffs Association, said he estimates as many as 10 members of the 600-member union may have it — including, possibly, himself. Twenty others have self-quarantined as they await test results.

"How many people are still walking into the jail every day who feel good, but are carriers?" Crawford said.

The Wayne County Jail population averages about 1,150 inmates, confirmed spokeswoman Pageant Atterberry. Sheriff Benny Napoleon said that's the "lowest it's been since I've been sheriff" in 2009, when the population was about 1,900. He attributed the decline, in part, to the rise of tethering as an alternative to incarceration.

That's been the trend for years, but is especially true in recent weeks, Dunlap said. On March 10, the Wayne County Jail had a population of about 1,380. In the time since, jail medical staff, the sheriff's office, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, and district and circuit court leadership in the county have all done their part to allow high-health risk but low-level suspects to be tethered as they await their day in court.

First, jail medical staff identifies the inmates at great risk for the coronavirus. The sheriff's office then pares down that list, excluding those with accused of assaultive crimes, felonies, and some high misdemeanors, and makes recommendations on which inmates could be released on tether rather than held in jail. That requires the sign-off of both the prosecutor's office and the judge, he said.

One of the people released on tether, for instance, is awaiting trial on embezzlement charges.

While no inmates have been tested, one was released Saturday on tether, after showing symptoms, Atterberry said.

Crawford reports that while he rarely gets sick, and that he usually overcomes it quickly when he does, he's had the symptoms of the virus for the last week. Working from home on Monday, a day before his 66th birthday, Crawford coughed several times during a 30-minute interview.

"I'm 95% sure that's what I have," Crawford says. "It's terrible."

On Saturday, Crawford took a roadside coronavirus test on Detroit's east side. He hasn't gotten the results back yet. 

Crawford said he and his wife returned from a European cruise several weeks back. She was sick for several weeks, and now he is. 

Six staffers or contractors are confirmed to have the virus.

Three work in the jail's division 1 facility at 570 Clinton, in downtown Detroit: a midnight shift nurse, a day-shift fourth-floor nurse, and a day-shift compliance officer.

Two work at the jail's division 3 facility in Hamtramck: a midnight shift registry officer, and a midnight shift master control officer. 

And one is an internal affairs officer who works the day shift.

"Only a select few can do their jobs from home," Napoleon said. For the "overwhelming percentage" of its staff, their office is the jail, the courts or the roads. Deputies who'd been assigned to court duty have been shifted to the jails as courts have moved more to video proceedings.

When deputies arrive at the jail, medical staff takes their temperature, Napoleon said. Those with a high temperature could be sent home or referred to testing, which is offered through two Wayne State University clinics, one on Detroit's east side and the other in Dearborn.

Dunlap's memo was sent just hours before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide stay-at-home order, which will be in effect through Monday, April 13.

Crawford said that while he felt the sheriff's administration lacked transparency in the early response to the virus, the union has been kept in the loop lately at its daily briefings.

Napoleon said the county has hired a private company to disinfect all three jail facilities, and that selected inmates at the jail were being deployed to regularly wipe down surfaces in common areas. 

"The only thing you can do is clean, follow CDC protocols, and have proper equipment," Crawford said.

Sick calls are up, Napoleon said. On Monday, 72 employees called in sick, Dunlap said.

"Health is our first priority," Dunlap said. "If you feel sick, call in sick. You're no good to us if your health is not good."

Dunlap credited a jail staff largely unable to work from home for continuing to shore up a "high-risk, high exposure" environment. 

"All they ask is that we keep them informed," Dunlap said.


Twitter: @downi75