As COVID-19 cases have started climbing in recent weeks, the Gregg County Jail has appeared to benefit from a policy requiring all the employees there to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
As of Friday, the jail had one inmate positive for COVID-19 and three employees — three employees who were all vaccinated and who are doing well, said Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano. Cerliano announced the vaccine mandate in December, requiring all his employees to be vaccinated unless they had a “bonafide reason” not to, including pregnancy, a doctor’s excuse or religious exemption.
“Of course, what we were looking at when those decisions were made, we had 50 positive staff members,” and 60 COVID-positive inmates, Cerliano said.
“Obviously, that was the most difficult time that we had faced since the pandemic hit,” he said. A total of three of his employees were hospitalized during that time, including one who recently returned to light-duty work and one who continues to need oxygen 24 hours a day and might not be able to return to work.
When the recent surge started, employees in the sheriff’s office were “100% vaccinated” with few exceptions. New hires are required to get vaccinated as well.
“(The decision to require vaccination) was very important at the time,” Cerliano said, and based on listening to what the jail’s physician, county health authority and county attorneys said.
“(The vaccine mandate) was important to protect the staff members and their families, the inmates, and to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect all these people that we’re responsible for, or that I’m responsible for,” Cerliano said.
The jail has returned to masking for staff and inmates, and people who are newly arrested receive a rapid COVID-19 test before they’re jailed. They also are quarantined for 14 days. The jail also conducts other screening efforts of inmates and staff members to help prevent COVID from spreading.
Voluntary shot clinics are being offered to inmates in the jail, with Cerliano estimating about one-third of the jails’ 600 inmates have participated so far.
“We’re going to continue to offer that periodically based on the number of inmates we have and how long they’ve been in jail to try and get as many vaccinated as possible,” Cerliano said.
Operating the jail has been a challenge since the pandemic began in March 2020, he said.
“But in talking to everyone involved, the doctors and the medical staff, we’re in better shape than our neighbors because of the steps we’ve taken,” the sheriff said. “We’re just hoping these steps continue to keep our numbers in check.”
This week the Smith County Jail, which does not require employees to be vaccinated, announced that it had 110 cases of inmates with COVID-19, 15 employees who had tested positive for the illness and others awaiting test results or who were in quarantine.
In Upshur County, Sheriff Larry Webb also recently implemented measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after the jail experienced a high of 31 inmates with COVID. As of Friday, that number was down to one, Webb said, with no employees with COVID. Vaccine clinics also are being offered to jail inmates.
Webb didn’t mandate COVID-19 vaccines for his 88 employees, but he said a majority of them either are vaccinated or have previously been ill with COVID-19.
“I feel that it’s a personal choice (whether to take the vaccine), and that’s my view of it,” Webb said. “When this pandemic first kicked off about 16 months ago, it went through us pretty hard. I had a lot of staff out with it. I had a lot of staff that did get the vaccine, so my numbers are a little bit different... Mandating something at this point in time really wouldn’t produce any better outcomes.”