TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County Jail is dealing with a limited outbreak of COVID-19 among its inmates, with seven incarcerated people having tested positive over the last month and some others in quarantine.

It is the first COVID-19 outbreak at Tompkins County Jail, though there have been severe outbreaks at other jails and prisons throughout the pandemic and continuing today.

Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne, in response to a request for comment from the Ithaca Voice, confirmed that seven incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID, with “mild symptoms.” Recently, there are between 35-40 people normally housed at the Tompkins County Jail.

“Because we have very low inmate counts, we have had plenty of room to isolate them from the general population,” he said. “All have since passed their 10-day requirement; however, we are giving them 14 days to be safe.”

There has not been a new positive test in the “past few days,” Osborne said.

Anyone incarcerated at Tompkins County Jail is offered the Johnson and Johnson vaccine upon arrival, a policy that began in April, and all are tested for COVID-19 upon entry. Osborne said all but one of the seven people who tested positive were vaccinated, “which helped alleviate their symptoms.”

As for how COVID entered the jail, Osborne acknowledged he isn’t sure.

“It’s very difficult to say, but if they test positive upon entry they are immediately isolated,” he said. “So it is my ‘guess’ that they contracted it afterwards.”

That would indicate it was brought into the facility some other way, via a visitor or employee, though the Health Department is not commenting on specific cases or contact tracing. Though Tompkins County instituted a vaccination mandate or weekly testing requirement for county employees, including corrections officers, on Oct. 1, they are not releasing vaccination rates for individual departments—all of which is self-reported by employees. Osborne said because it’s medical information, he is not aware of the vaccination rates among jail employees either.

“This is the first time we have experienced inmate COVID infections since the start of the pandemic, so I remain proud of our track record,” Osborne said. “Our inmates also have a full-time nurse on hand as well as our jail physician. We have had no new infection in the past few days, so I think we have seen the end of the spread. Fingers crossed.”

In response to the cases, Tompkins County Assigned Counsel Supervising Attorney Lance Salisbury distributed an internal email advising its lawyers that they may want to avoid the jail for “a week or so” and arrange virtual accommodations for any court appearances their clients may have in that timespan.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com