Even as COVID-19’s omicron variant spreads rapidly through New Jersey, infecting residents and health care workers alike, the Bergen County Jail has so far escaped the sort of major outbreak that would send it into lockdown.
As of Tuesday, only four of the Hackensack jail’s 588 inmates had contracted COVID, Sheriff Anthony Cureton said. And about 18 of its 303 corrections officers and civilian staff have come down with the virus.
Bergen’s low numbers stand out during another winter coronavirus surge, driven by the omicron variant, that has consumed the rest of New Jersey — the state reported a record 20,483 new cases Wednesday.
They also defy trends among other essential workers, such as hospital staff. The state reported 2,300 new cases among hospital employees Tuesday, including several hundred each at such major facilities as Hackensack University Medical Center, University Hospital in Newark and Morristown Medical Center.
“I think it’s fair to say Bergen isn’t reflective of other areas,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and the former chief of the Bergen County Police Department. “Maybe someone needs to look at what they’re doing — maybe they’re doing a good job.”
Cureton, who oversees the jail, attributes this to protocols he installed during the pandemic to help keep the facility clean.
“We’ve been consistent with disinfecting, cleaning, and enforcement of staff and inmates wearing the appropriate [personal protective equipment] in the jail,” Cureton said in an email. “Additionally, we have medical staff that monitors inmates’ health and randomly performs COVID testing continuously.”
Curbing the virus as it tries to sweep through jails and prisons has been a particularly daunting task.
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Early in the pandemic, David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, compared the facilities to a cruise ship at sea — largely removed from the outside world but still packed with people living in close quarters.
“If [the coronavirus] breaks the containment, you have the potential for a lot of cases,” Cennimo said. “It’s a dangerous situation.”
The first Bergen County corrections officer tested positive for the virus on March 18, 2020; a federal immigration detainee tested positive less than a week later, sending the lockup into a lockdown.
But the jail reported only 53 COVID cases among inmates between March 2020 and February 2021. Then an outbreak in May sickened dozens and led to quarantines.
Other county jails in New Jersey have reported problems in recent weeks.
The Monmouth County jail locked down in early December after a COVID outbreak infected 21 inmates and nine corrections officers. And the Essex County Correctional Facility has reportedly halted in-person visits after 101 officers and 28 inmates tested positive at the 2,300-inmate facility.
The holiday COVID surge has struck Bergen County when its jail is particularly vulnerable — about two months ago, Bergen began accepting inmates from neighboring Passaic County as Passaic looks to close its aging, decrepit jail in Paterson.
Shuttling inmates back and forth could open the door to spreading infections. But Cureton said administrators are testing inmates before they leave Passaic and again when they reach Hackensack.
Guards are also housing Passaic inmates alongside the people with whom they arrived.
“We keep them together in the same group for at least two weeks until they are all cleared for COVID,” Cureton said. “Then they are moved into general population.”
Sick inmates are expected to report their illness or symptoms to the staff, who then test them for COVID, Cureton said. There is also a fair amount of random testing, especially in the units that previously housed sick prisoners.
The sheriff said corrections officers are giving inmates two masks a week. The county is also looking to secure a supply of KN95 masks, which filter 95% of particles.
Jail administrators have also assigned an officer to clean and disinfect the facility each night.
On Tuesday, the Bergen County Jail held 335 of its own inmates and 246 from Passaic, the sheriff said. It’s also holding seven detainees from the U.S. Marshals Service.
Corrections officers have quarantined the four inmates who tested positive.
Just a few months ago, New Jersey seemed to be coasting toward the end of the nearly two-year pandemic. But omicron changed that.
First detected in the state in early December, the variant has torn through the ranks of the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. Infection numbers have skyrocketed, especially as more people got tested before holiday travel and visits to family.
Although New Jersey’s daily case count sprang past 20,000 on Wednesday, the true number is almost certainly higher.
The state’s report does not include the many at-home test kit results, and some cases are likely missed entirely because the demand for tests has far exceeded their availability.
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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