When an employee with the Cullman Police Department tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, it marked the first documented infection for a full-time city PD staff member, and only the second overall since the pandemic began in March.
“This is the first, and — knock on wood — we hope the only one we’ll see,” said Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper Wednesday, noting his department continues to take thorough precautions to help prevent a spread of the virus among patrol staff.
“We’ve had no major outbreaks or anything involving multiple officers,” he said. “We had one part-time officer who contracted it early on, back in the spring, and then this new case this week. We’re trying to adhere to our protocols, using masking and distancing and good procedures when interacting, as much as possible. While we haven’t experienced anything that would disrupt our schedule or our patrols, there is always a concern, so we stay vigilant.”
“We’ve been very blessed,” said Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry of his department staff’s low rate of infection over the past eight months. “We know that COVID has had a huge impact on our community, and affected a lot of loved ones and even claimed lives. It’s been a struggle for a lot of people, and I’m proud that, through the diligence of our employees, we’ve kept our infection rate both among staff, and within the inmate population at the jail, very low.”
Among the 157 employees at the sheriff’s office, only seven have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak first began, said Gentry.
At the jail, a single inmate so far has tested positive since March. Thankfully, said Gentry, none of the infections that have occurred among staff have overlapped in a way that would affect scheduling or reduce the number of deputies the sheriff’s office can place in the field at any one time.
“A lot of people may not realize that our deputies come in contact with people constantly; every day,” he said. “We are diligent, whether it’s in the office, the jail, or in the field, to take every precaution. We of course provide masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and we’re constantly harping on the importance of distancing and keeping things clean.
“In all the months since this first began, we’ve had seven employees and one inmate test positive, which is a low number considering the 320 inmates in our jail and all of our employees. That could change tomorrow, but we continue to be thorough with our precautions. Since March, every day we deep-clean the jail, twice a day. We check temperatures four times a day. New inmates are quarantined for 14 days before they’re moved into the general population. And when people are in the office, we have an inmate cleaning the office every hour, on the hour.”
Hanceville Police Chief Bob Long said Wednesday his department also hadn’t been hit with any kind of widespread infections over the past several months. “We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “In the PD, we have not had any cases. There have been one or two city employees who’ve tested positive going back to the start, but those were both in the past, and as far as I know as of today, no Hanceville employee in or outside of the police department is testing positive.”
Because state health guidelines require a patient to begin a 10-day isolation from the date of a positive COVID-19 test, even a small handful of cases — even if they’re symptom-free — could rapidly affect the available manpower for a given shift within a police or sheriff’s department.
“You could find yourself in that kind of situation very quickly,” said Culpepper. “I’ve told my guys that any one of us could get the coronavirus from our family members or the people they can’t help but interact with as a part of their daily lives. They’re not in a bubble. If our whole shift were to get it, I let my guys know that that means somebody wasn’t following protocol when they were around each other at work.”
Gentry said he’s grateful for the patience and support the community has shown his deputies throughout the pandemic. “Since this has happened, people have supported us every day, whether it’s sending cards, feeding us, or just saying ‘Thanks’ when they see us,” he said.
“We’ve done virtual meetings with school kids when we’d normally be there in the schools, and those kids have written us thank-you letters, which really made our people proud. All in all, we’re blessed to have come through it — so far — as well as we have, and we’re extremely thankful that the community takes care of us. A lot of people in our area have hurt from this, and we know several who have even lost a loved one. We take our precautions seriously, because we realize it’s something that affects more than just us at the sheriff’s office. It affects our citizens, our inmates, and everyone we come in contact with.”