This story has been updated.

A detention officer who oversaw inmates at the Bexar County jail has tested positive for COVID-19, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said on Thursday.

Jail personnel who worked closely with the officer have been placed on administrative leave, and inmates overseen by the deputy will be monitored for 14 days.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said his department has been working to prevent the virus from becoming a problem inside the facility.

“Our mantra around here has basically been, ‘A little overreaction never killed anybody,’” Salazar said Monday. “We are overreacting to every situation that comes across, up to and including going above and beyond what medical advice we’re given.”

The sheriff’s office released a plan to fight the spread of COVID-19 in March that included citing and releasing people for nonviolent offenses instead of arresting them, and separating people with flu-like symptoms from the rest of the jail. Read the full plan here.

The deputy who tested positive reported feeling sick on Monday, but did not have a fever. The officer did not work the next day and was tested twice for COVID-19 – once at University Hospital and once at Baptist Hospital. The officer received a positive test result on Wednesday.

The deputy is on administrative leave until any symptoms are gone, the sheriff’s office said Thursday.

Salazar also sees keeping the population at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center as low as possible as a way to help prevent contagion. Since the beginning of the year, the Bexar County Jail population has dipped by almost 900 inmates, to 3,131 as of Wednesday. More than 800 inmates were released in March.

“I just want [the population] to be as low as it can safely be,” he said.

The sheriff himself made the decision to release 15 nonviolent offenders solely to lower the population; the rest have been released by judges’ orders or transferred to the state prison system, Salazar said.

“I said, ‘Give me a list of people serving out misdemeanor sentences here.’ It was like 70 [people],” Salazar said. “We disqualified half of them off the bat because they were [incarcerated for] family violence.”

He also said that Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order, which prohibits inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released without paying bail, would not affect how he would decide which inmates to release in the future.

In addition to keeping the jail population in check, officials at the detention center are being vigilant in efforts to prevent an outbreak among the inmates.

Jail officials recently kept under medical observation 22 inmates who came into contact with a district court employee whose family member tested positive for COVID-19. Though the University Health System monitored their symptoms and said they could return to the general jail population, those 22 were kept away from the rest of the inmates for for an additional period, Salazar said. UHS personnel did not test them for coronavirus, he added.

“UHS cleared them, and we said we appreciate the medical advice, but we’re going to keep them where they are a couple of days more,” Salazar said.

Like many other correctional facilities, people incarcerated in the county jail do not have access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer because it is considered contraband. But they are given soap and water and can wash their hands inside of their cells or common areas, spokesman Johnny Garcia said.

“There are cleaning chemicals we provide to officers, and inmates are allowed to clean cells and maintain hygiene of the unit,” he said. “That hasn’t changed for years. … They clean constantly to maintain health.”

No inmates in the Bexar County jail have tested positive so far. But in enclosed spaces like jails, a highly transmittable disease such as COVID-19 could move quickly. In the Harris County jail, one inmate has tested positive while 30 others with COVID-19 symptoms wait for test results. At Rikers Island in New York, the chief physician said the number of cases went from one to 200 in just 12 days.

Monitoring deputies and jail staff

Few uniformed officers have been tested for coronavirus at the sheriff’s department, Salazar said. Detention officers who work in living units that require two deputies present at a time will begin wearing N95 masks and work separately from each other.

Detention officers do not usually wear masks, but typically wear gloves for such purposes as patting people down. And as of Thursday, all inmates extradited from other counties will wear masks for 14 days and be isolated from the rest of the jail population for the same amount of time.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We might bring in five people from Harris County, [which] has a COVID-19 issue,” he said. “So we’re going to have those people put in a separate area and wearing masks to be on the safe side.”

People newly arrested and booked into the jail will also wear masks for 14 days, the sheriff’s office said Thursday.

Salazar stressed that the five people Bexar County is considering extraditing had violent charges on their arrest warrants. In cases in which the warrant is for a nonviolent offense, sheriffs often make the decision to not to seek extradition and refile the warrant later, he said.

If an inmate tests positive for coronavirus, the Bexar County jail also has four negative-pressure cells that keep contaminated air from flowing into the rest of the jail. Those cells are typically used for inmates diagnosed with tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease, but those cells can be used to house people with COVID-19, spokesman Johnny Garcia said.

All staff and members of the public have their temperatures taken each time they enter the sheriff’s department building. A news release Sunday stated that an employee of the jail’s video visitation center tested positive for COVID-19. That person has been on administrative leave since March 19, the day after the individual reported feeling sick, and the center will remain closed for two weeks as the sheriff’s office makes upgrades to allow for remote video visitation as well as to allow for “decontaminating.”

Eleven other employees at the video visitation center are on administrative leave until April 6 “out of an abundance of caution,” though the sheriff’s office said they are not displaying any symptoms of coronavirus. Two members of the sheriff’s administration also are working from home because they came into contact with the employee who tested positive.

Health officials think there was a low risk of “contamination” for people who visited the video visitation center March 16-18, the sheriff’s office said in a statement. The office added that people who visited the center during that period should watch for symptoms and call the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District hotline at 210-207-5779 with COVID-19 questions.

Starting on April 13, people can visit inmates via remote video visitation.

“As a result of remote video visitation being available, each inmate will receive two free remote visits per week with each remote visit lasting 25 minutes, until onsite video visitation becomes available,” the sheriff’s office said in a March 20 statement.

Staffing in case of a shortage

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office currently has about 200 vacancies for patrol officers and detention officers, but anticipates hiring more than 100 new officers in the next couple of months, Salazar said. He acknowledged that a staffing shortage could happen if large numbers of officers call in sick, as has occurred in jails across New York City.

“Right now, we only have so many positions we can fill,” he said.

Currently, 700 deputies work in the detention center and 562 serve on the law enforcement side, according to the sheriff’s office. Detention officers have been consistently working mandatory overtime; in 2019, the county paid nearly $7 million to cover overtime pay.

Outside the jail, Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies also are being more discerning about the calls they respond to, such as medical calls, Salazar said.

“We used to dispatch a deputy to those,” he said. “Now, we may not dispatch a deputy on it, we just let [the fire department] decide.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.