By Hannah Critchfield

Dylan’s bunkmate tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. He’s still sleeping right below him.

Despite not yet being reported on the Department of Health and Human Services’ website, Pitt County Detention Center currently has an outbreak of the novel coronavirus which has upended the country. COVID-19 has caused 10 deaths in the state’s prison system, but none yet among North Carolina’s 99 jails.

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Seven detainees and two staff at the Pitt County facility are infected with the virus, according to Sgt. Lee Darnell, public relations and information officer at Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.

His office confirmed this after North Carolina Health News received reports from inmates about the seven positive people, who they said continue to be housed alongside uninfected people in the dorm, a total of 27 people.

“We just have to wait with the guys who tested positive, because they don’t want to spread it to the other parts of the jail,” said Dylan, an inmate at Pitt County Detention Center who requested that NC Health News give him a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation. NC Health News verified that he is currently housed at the facility.

“So we’re all just stuck here, waiting. They’re not doing nothing for us,” he said.

Now Dylan, along with several other inmates in the unit, said they have begun to experience COVID-19-like symptoms and are struggling to get a test.

“I filled out the paperwork to ask for one,” Dylan said. “But yesterday, one of the guards told me, ‘It really don’t make sense to get tested, because you’ve been around other guys who tested positive. The test’s going to come back positive anyway, so you’ve got to let it work its course.’

“So they’re just giving us Tylenol,” said Dylan, alleging that detainees were given masks for the first time on Thursday. Other inmates said prison staff told them the masks would be exchanged weekly.

“And we’re all stuck in this small area.”

Pitt County Sheriff’s Office confirmed inmates who have tested positive are isolated in the dorm. But officials also acknowledged they’re living alongside the rest of the dorm’s population.

“I just want to know I’ve got a fair chance of coming back to health,” said Joshua, an inmate who said he is one of the seven who tested positive for COVID-19 and requested NC Health News give him a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation. NC Health News also verified that he is currently housed at the facility.

“We’re all on top of each other, breathing, coughing and sneezing on each other daily. What’s the plan moving forward?” he asked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 be isolated separately from others to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. The agency also recommends quarantining individuals who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19.

At the Pitt County jail, inmates said both isolation of confirmed cases and quarantining of people exposed are taking place in the same dorm, exposing those who have not yet tested positive to increased risk of contracting the virus.

“Based on the cluster, the inmates that tested ‘positive’ are ‘isolated’ in place and others whom are in the same location are presumed ‘exposed’ so, they are also, ‘isolated’ in the same location,” Pitt County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Darnell wrote in an email.

Jail officials should not cohort inmates with confirmed cases alongside people who are “suspected cases,” according to DHHS guidelines for county jails. If a facility doesn’t have space to provide medical isolation to inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, DHHS recommends they instead transfer them as a last resort — not quarantine them with people who have merely been exposed to the virus.

Family members said they’re worried the practice means previously healthy people who are incarcerated will catch COVID-19 unnecessarily.

“He has high blood pressure, is a smoker, and is obese, making him medically vulnerable,” said Dylan’s aunt Dianthe Brooks.

Outbreaks in North Carolina jails have spiked this month, with 23 jails  — not including Pitt County Detention Center — currently experiencing COVID-19 cases, according to DHHS data.

County jails are advised to report COVID-19 outbreaks, meaning two or more people have tested positive for the virus, to their local health departments, who then notify DHHS. The state health agency in turn updates their list of “congregate outbreaks” every Tuesday and Friday. This leaves room for potential delay in disseminating the information to the public — as of Tuesday evening, Pitt County Detention Center is not currently listed, despite its new cases.

A DHHS spokesperson said the Pitt County Health Department has notified them of the outbreak, and it will be listed in Friday’s case count.

In the interim, word often spreads like its own viral outbreak among families and loved ones of people incarcerated inside, as inmates call home.

Inmates who have begun to experience symptoms said they still can’t understand why they’ve been denied tests.

“I’m having a hard time breathing right now, and I’ve been vomiting,” said Tyrone Davis, who said he’s a federal prisoner housed at the county jail facility. “But they said since I’m in here with everybody else, and everybody’s been exposed to COVID-19, they denied me a test. There’s 27 people in this dorm, and basically everybody’s getting sick. And they ain’t doing nothing about it.”

If the jail is declining to do additional testing, it means the public will not have access to an accurate count of the number of people who were infected by the virus inside.

“The most important question is: How did we get it in that unit when none of us have been outside or into another unit or nothing?” asked Joshua. “They can’t answer that. I’m sure one of the staff members has it because in order for us to have it we had to get it from one of them.”

Two detention staffers currently have the virus, confirmed Darnell.

Joshua alleged staff members are currently wearing masks but were not prior to the positive tests on August 20.

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...