Correctional facilities, where inmates live in tight quarters, have proven (entirely predictably) to be hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks. Some jails and prisons in the area have managed to avoid major transmission within their walls—as of May 8, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail has reported just four cases, all among “support staff” who do not come in regular contact with inmates. The Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women reports zero cases.
But in Buckingham County, two state prisons have become the sites of major outbreaks. As of May 11, the Dillwyn Correctional Center reports that 205 total offenders have tested positive for COVID, and Buckingham Correctional Center reports 75, according to data from the Virginia Department of Corrections.
These situations show how quickly outbreaks can spread within prisons once the virus is present. Dillwyn saw seven cases turn into more than 200 in the span of one week at the end of April, and Buckingham reported just 13 cases last Wednesday. (Mid-April expansion of testing may have contributed to the increases, notes the DOC, but the Dillwyn outbreak did not pick up steam until early May.)
As C-VILLE reported in March, many facilities have been releasing nonviolent inmates to house arrest and limiting pretrial detention, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail has moved 16 percent of its inmates out of the facility. Because it’s a regional jail, the effort to identify and release low-level offenders, and inmates with health risks, has been spearheaded by our local commonwealth’s attorneys, who have pursued such policies more aggressively than state-level administrators.
The two Buckingham facilities with severe outbreaks are state prisons, meaning they are monitored and managed by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The DOC has been moving inmates out of prison at a far slower rate than the ACRJ. As of last Thursday, 130 prisoners had been moved out of state prisons—a tiny fraction of the roughly 38,000 prisoners in the Virginia state system.
The state prison system also oversaw an outbreak at Bon Air Juvenile Detention Center, near Richmond, in which more than 30 teens tested positive for the disease. The Washington Post characterized the Bon Air outbreak as the worst at a youth prison in the nation. On May 9, a 66-year old man died from COVID while incarcerated in the Buckingham facility, became one of five people to die from the disease while in prison in Virginia.
Is Charlottesville ready for Phase 1?
Last week, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would move to Phase 1 of reopening on Friday, May 15. Phase 1 keeps gatherings limited to 10 people, strongly encourages teleworking, and keeps schools and entertainment facilities closed. But the eased restrictions allow non-essential retail, restaurants with outdoor seating, and places of worship to operate at 50 percent capacity, and lets Virginians seek “personal grooming” by appointment.
The state set two case-based criteria for beginning to ease restrictions: declining rates of positive tests over 14 days, and declining hospitalizations over 14 days. On Monday, Northam gave some places in northern Virginia permission to delay moving to Phase 1, as the situation there is more dire than elsewhere in the state.
The Charlottesville area passes the test for declining hospitalizations, according to data from the state: In Charlottesville and Albemarle combined, the Virginia Department of Health shows that only one person has been newly hospitalized with coronavirus in the last two weeks.
Since the pandemic began, the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes Charlottesville, Albemarle, Greene, Louisa, and Fluvanna, has seen 62 total hospitalizations, according to the state.
Total reported cases in the area continue to rise at a slow but steady rate. Twenty out of the last 21 days have seen at least one new case confirmed. The area might technically satisfy the governor’s criteria for reopening, but that doesn’t mean the virus is under control.