Liberty County, the last to succumb, sees surge in COVID-19 cases, nearly all in state prison

Nearly all of Liberty County's 60 confirmed COVID-19 infections are among inmates at Liberty Correctional Institution, a state prison with 1,363 inmates. Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

Liberty County, the last of Florida’s 67 counties to succumb to coronavirus, suddenly has dozens of COVID-19 cases, nearly all from an outbreak at Liberty Correctional Institution, a state prison, according to the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC).

The DOC said Tuesday that a recent round of testing found 66 inmates and two employees infected with the disease, although the Florida Department of Health posted only 60 infections countywide through Tuesday. The variance in the figures could not be reconciled by the time this story was published.

State Sen. Bill Montford, whose north Florida district includes Liberty County, said Tuesday the outbreak at the state prison constitutes most of the COVID-19 infections countywide and that testing is ongoing.

So far, no one has been hospitalized with the disease in Liberty County, according to the Florida Department of Health, which reported a spike of 52 cases on Sunday alone, the same day the Florida Department of Corrections announced that a round of testing revealed 52 infections among the 1,363 inmates in Liberty Correctional Institution (CI). The DOC announced the 52 inmates had been directly exposed to just one other inmate who was infected.

Only four cases in Liberty County were not attributed to the prison outbreak by the Department of Health through Tuesday morning.

Since its first infection on April 10, all of Liberty County reported only eight infections through Saturday, the day before the outbreak at the prison came to light.

“My understanding [after speaking with Corrections officials] is that the vast majority are asymptomatic,” Montford said of the infected inmates, expressing temporary relief because the area’s only hospital has just 25 beds and is not equipped to treat patients with such a contagious, sometimes fatal disease requiring specialty care.

Calhoun Liberty Hospital is a small acute-care hospital that serves Calhoun and Liberty counties, two rural, high-poverty counties located on opposite sides of the Apalachicola River. The hospital was damaged by Hurricane Michael in late 2018 and, Montford said, it is still in financial distress like other hospitals damaged when that storm devastated a swath of north Florida.

“The local hospital cannot handle it,” Montford said of the COVID-19 outbreak. “They would have to be transferred to other hospitals.”

Liberty Correctional Institution not only has 66 inmates and two employees confirmed positive, but is also holding another 352 inmates in medical quarantine or isolation after they were directly exposed to at least one infected person.

The Department of Corrections said it is working with the Calhoun County Health Department to offer testing to all inmates and employees in that prison.

Elsewhere in the state prison system, 390 inmates and 174 employees are confirmed infected among Florida’s 145 correctional facilities and regional probation offices. The disease has killed seven inmates – six of them at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, privately run by The GEO Group in Santa Rosa County.

The Department of Corrections refuses to release any details about inmates who have died of COVID-19, and Gov. Ron DeSantis recently shut down media access to coroners’ reports that allowed information about the first six dead inmates to be known. It is unclear where the seventh inmate was incarcerated or whether he or she died in prison or in a hospital.

Hotspots in addition to Liberty CI are Tomoka CI in Volusia County, where 128 inmates and 19 employees are reported infected; Sumter CI in Sumter County, with 92 inmates and 13 employees are confirmed infected; Blackwater River CF, with 48 inmates and 11 employees confirmed infected; South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County, which like Blackwater is operated by The GEO Group, with 14 inmates and 44 employees confirmed infected; and Columbia CI near Lake City, where 25 inmates and one employee are confirmed infected.

Systemwide, the Department of Corrections reported through Tuesday evening that 4,099 inmates are in medical quarantine or isolation, having been directly exposed to an infected person and/or showing symptoms of COVID-19. Most of them are at Tomoka, South Bay, Sumter, Liberty, Blackwater, Apalachee CI in Jackson County, and Gadsden Correctional Facility near Quincy, privately operated by MTC.

At least 11 test results are pending, and 389 tests on inmates have come back negative in state prisons statewide.