National Guard assists during Covid outbreak at county jail
By Shanna Cummings
A Covid outbreak at the Culberson County jail that started January 6 led to an unprecedented situation: the jail closed to new inmates, all county employees either tested positive or were sent home for quarantine, and eight inmates who tested negative were transferred to Hudspeth County jail. Visitations were suspended until further notice.
“We were running on a skeleton crew, but my skeleton fell apart this morning,” Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo told Culberson County commissioners on Monday during the regular meeting. Tests performed Monday morning resulted in the loss of the dispatch crew.
In all, four jailers, two deputies and eight inmates tested positive for Covid. The Covid positive inmates remained at the jail because no other facility would accept them.
All jail and dispatch employees were ordered into quarantine until January 13. The National Guard has manned non-guard duties like dispatch and communications since Monday afternoon, but are not guarding inmates. Meals are being brought in from outside sources.
Employees will retest on January 13. Those who test negative but have Covid symptoms will return to quarantine for another five days. Those who return to work are required to wear masks.
The outbreak and resulting complications have attracted the attention of the Governor’s Office, The Texas Department of Emergency Management, the Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety, and other law enforcement entities, all asking about Sheriff Carrillo’s plan to handle the unusual circumstances.
No other jail in the state has experienced a Covid outbreak resulting in the loss of staff to the extent of requiring the assistance of the National Guard to keep it running.
“We’re a first. That garners a lot of attention,” Carrillo told commissioners, adding that the jail is a crucial component in border security.
Carrillo said his plan after January 13 retests includes mandatory masks for all within the jail, and weekly testing of staff and inmates until the spread is under control.
“That’s the position that I’ve taken, and I will be held accountable through the jail commission and everybody else for the position, but that’s all I can do,” he said. “I’ve got to stop it, I’ve got to control it, and once I control it, then we will reassess and we’ll go from there.”
Carrillo’s mask requirement for employees sparked discussion about legality. The sheriff can’t require all jail employees to get vaccinated. Judge Urias also questioned the legality of Carrillo’s mask requirement. As of yet, the county hasn’t nailed down Covid protocols for its employees, and Governor Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban has been countered by a court of appeals.
“I run the jail, that’s my business, and my people are going to wear masks,” Carrillo said. “I’m not going to let them contaminate other people.”
Commissioners remarked that Carrillo can’t guarantee the quarantined employees are staying home. “How do you control that?” Urias asked.
“If you quarantine, you go home,” Carrillo said, assuring commissioners that his employees know what is expected of them.
“But that doesn’t happen,” Urias countered.
Commissioners will tackle Covid protocols for county employees during the January 14 special meeting at 10:00 a.m.