FULTON COUNTY — Approximately 38 inmates and nine staff members at the Fulton County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, part of an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus at the facility for the past two weeks.
The outbreak is occurring at a time when Fulton County continues to have the lowest percentage of vaccinated residents among the six mostly rural counties of the Mohawk Valley Region. As of Friday, 27.3% of Fulton County’s residents, about 14,639 people, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — that ranks 5th from the bottom among New York state’s 62 counties, with population center Bronx County ranking worst with 26.5% of its residents vaccinated, a total of 379,203 people.
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said all of his county’s sheriff’s deputies and corrections staff were offered the COVID-19 vaccine about two months ago, but more than half of them have refused to take the shot.
“I can’t order people to get tested, and I can’t order people to get vaccines,” Giardino said. “Under the state mandate all inmates will be offered the vaccine when we have it because they are in a congregate facility. When we get our batch of those, anyone who wants it. When I offered testing, not everyone took the test and when we offered the vaccine not everyone took the vaccine. I can tell you under 50% of the entire staff at the jail and at the sheriff’s office took the vaccine.”
Giardino said the Fulton County Jail managed to avoid any COVID-19 cases in 2020, but the lucky streak came to end on March 26 when an inmate complaining of COVID-19 symptoms tested positive for the virus.
“He didn’t ask [to be tested], we tested him per the protocol,” Giardino said. “Our jail captain contacted our medical provider. The medical provider and individuals from his team came here, worked with our nurses in the medical unit, and within four hours of the first positive we had 99 people tested. Some people refused to be tested, which is their prerogative.”
Giardino said when the results of the COVID-19 testing game back, the jail had three positive staff members and about 16 positive inmates.
“The jail was put on lockdown after the first one … everything was double cleaned,” Giardino said. “We eliminated people we could get out of the facility who were at the end of their sentence, and we eliminated weekend sentencing for the time being as to eliminate the possibility of more COVID-19 coming into the facility.”
Fulton County Jail staff also have been required to wear N95 respirator masks during their duties and the jail has attempted to isolate the COVID-19 cases together and away from the non-positive inmates.
The jail’s lockdown measures, however, have not prevented the virus from effectively doubling the number of positive cases over the past two weeks to 38 inmates and 9 staff members.
Giardino said that so far 13 COVID-positive inmates have recovered from the virus and no longer show any symptoms; two of the nine COVID-positive staff members have cleared their symptoms and returned to work.
Giardino said Fulton County is not alone in struggling to deal with a COVID-19 jail outbreak. “Schenectady had an outbreak, Saratoga had an outbreak, these are just circumstances,” he said.
Janine Kava, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services’ director of public information, on Friday provided The Daily Gazette with a chart of all of the known COVID-19 positive cases among county jail inmates since the state started tracking those figures in late March 2020. The chart did not include currently active cases.
As of Wednesday there had been a statewide total of 3,448 COVID-positive cases among inmates and four deaths. The statewide numbers were worse for jail corrections staff, with 3,982 COVID-positive cases and 13 deaths.
Fulton County currently has the second-highest number of COVID inmate cases among the six rural counties in the Mohawk Valley, with only Oneida County Jail having had more at 48. Oneida County jail has also had 77 staff members test positive for the virus over the past year. There have been no deaths among staff or inmates in Oneida County.
To the east of Fulton County, Saratoga County has had 111 COVID-19 cases among inmates over the past year and 33 cases among corrections staff, with no deaths.
Schenectady County has had 18 positive cases among inmates and 55 cases among corrections staff, with no deaths for either. Albany County has had 148 county jail inmates test positive, and 105 staff members, with no deaths for either.
The New York state prison system has had it worse. As of Thursday, a total of 6,421 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past year and 35 of them have died, according to data from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Giardino said Fulton County in 2020 had “a couple of” positive cases among sheriff’s deputies, but none leading up to the March 26 outbreak at the jail.
“We’ve worked with our medical professionals and our medical staff and neither of them can isolate patient zero — it’s not always the first person to show symptoms because they can be asymptomatic,” he said. “Every inmate we got from Herkimer and Saratoga were tested before we got them and they tested negative, or we wouldn’t have been able to accept them, and the 13 prisoners we’ve sent to state prison have all tested negative, otherwise the state prison wouldn’t have taken them.”
Giardino said new Fulton County resident prisoners have not been required to be tested, but are isolated for 24 hours when they first come into the facility. He said that in 2020, due to the court system shutdown, the total number of prisoners in Fulton County dwindled to around 40, but swelled back up to 120 after the courts reopened. As of Friday, he said, Fulton County had 99 inmates and 60 total jail staff. Seven were out sick with COVID-19. He said expects to get more vaccine available for inmates early next week.
Gloversville resident Michael Deming, who has tested negative for COVID-19, is an inmate at the Fulton County jail. He contacted The Daily Gazette Friday via a collect call from the jail.
Deming said he’s been an inmate for about the last two weeks because he skipped out of a bench warrant for his sentencing for DWI.
He claimed some corrections officers don’t always wear the proper contamination clothing. “I had to put a grievance in because one officer came out of the contamination unit and didn’t bother taking off none of his gear, just sat at his desk and started typing,” he said.
Giardino said he believes all of the staff at the jail are following all of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and guidelines issued by New York state. He said the space limitations at the Fulton County Jail make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.
Deming said he was offered a COVID-19 vaccine after the outbreak, buthe refused it, because he’s concerned about potential side effects. “I’ve heard there’s a lot of issues with the vaccine,” he said. “They offered some of us the vaccination, but I just refused it, as did most of the people.”
In nearby Montgomery County, no prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 35.5% of the county’s residents, 17,536 people, have received at least once dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — a little less than 36% of New York state residents who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine.
Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith said five corrections officers at his county’s jail have tested positive over the past year and one dispatcher. He said he believes his jail has avoided a COVID-19 outbreak by adhering to a strict safety protocol, and because it has special jail cells for in-take of new prisoners.
“When an inmate comes in, they are put into our positive pressure cells, and they are quarantined for 14 days before they are allowed around the general population, unless the prisoner is coming from another county, which means they already had a negative test,” Smith said.
But Smith admits he’s struggled with convincing his staff and inmates to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’ve had multiple opportunities to get vaccines, and each time we’ve offered to all of the staff, and we’re at about 50 percent on all sides of the building,” Smith said. “The feedback I heard is people are just nervous about it. They don’t believe in it. They think it’s like the flu vaccine. I encourage people to do it, but I know it’s a personal decision. In a facility-type setting that we work in — I thought it would be the best idea to protect all of us, but it is what it is, only about half felt comfortable doing it. I’ve taken it.”
Giardino would not say if he’s received the COVID-19 vaccination. He said he’s alerted his staff with emails whenever the vaccine has been available, but he doesn’t think it’s his place to advocate that people take the vaccine. He said he’s been tested for COVID-19 nine times and taken the virus antibody test 4 times, and all of his tests have come back negative.
“I don’t think it’s relevant whether I’ve taken the vaccine or not,” Giardino said. “I think it’s a person’s own decision, between them and their doctor.”
Smith on Friday said Montgomery County’s Department of Public Health was able to obtain some COVID-19 vaccines and offered them to the jail’s 77 inmates. He said 23 of them agreed to take the shot.
“And it was offered to every inmate, and only 23 took it,” he said.