The Volusia County Branch Jail and the Tomoka Correctional Institution are within two miles from one another, but when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the jail and the state prison seem worlds apart.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports that Tomoka Correctional has the worst outbreak of the coronavirus among Florida's state prisons: 82 inmates and 10 staff members or correctional officers at Tomoka have so far tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, the Volusia County Branch Jail has not had a single case of coronavirus among its staff or among 1,200 inmates.
It’s a source of pride for both the jail and the county. Mark Flowers, the warden of the Volusia County Branch Jail, said he and his staff started preparing as soon as the first publicized case of coronavirus in the United States appeared in Washington state in February.
The outcomes at the two facilities suggests a differing approach to the pandemic.
Last month, the Volusia County jail released nearly 90 inmates with non-violent charges as part of its strategy to prevent an outbreak. New inmates are quarantined for two weeks before being allowed into the general population. Visitation is only being done by video, and inmates are required to wear masks.
“We’ve explained to them that their safety is much more important, and our safety is much more important, than them being able to play cards so they are back on lock down,” Flowers said.
Controlling the spread of illness in places like prisons where people live in close quarters is always a challenge, according to Michelle C. Nash, the director for the Health Sciences Collegiate Academy at Lake-Sumter State College and an affiliate assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida College of Public Health.
She said when an outbreak occurs in a place in a group-living setting like a prison, the infected should be separated from the uninfected, staff should use personal protective equipment and other measures should be taken based on how the disease is transmitted.
Both facilities share the same ZIP code, an area that has had 88 positive cases of coronavirus — the most in Volusia County and has pushed up countwide infection numbers.
Tomoka Correctional’s 82 inmates and 10 staff testing positive for the coronavirus represent the largest pandemic cluster in the state prison system which includes 50 major institutions. The outbreak is far worse than Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, a privately run facility that has 43 inmates and 10 staff who have tested positive. Four inmates at Blackwater River have died, the only fatalities in the state prison system.
Officials at Tomoka Correctional declined to comment and referred all questions about the outbreak at the prison to the state Department of Corrections.