Willacy County COVID-19 jail outbreak leads more jailers, inmates testing positive

RAYMONDVILLE — The Willacy County Jail’s coronavirus outbreak has infected at least 21 jailers and inmates as officials try to stop the virus from spreading into the community.

On Monday, the state health department confirmed eight more jailers had contracted the COVID-19 virus, bringing the number of infected jail workers to 12 since the outbreak began more than a week ago.

Meanwhile, health officials found four more inmates had contracted the virus, boosting the number of infected prisoners to nine.

“Anytime you have an outbreak like this it’s concerning,” Frank Torres, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said late Monday afternoon. “What we have to do now is contain it the best we can.”

Torres was expecting more new cases as this rural farming county’s total number of COVID-19 cases doubled to 42 in about a week.

“We’re still awaiting more results,” he said.

Across the county, the state health department will continue testing residents for the COVID-19 virus free of charge through Friday.

Officials are planning to set up more testing sites next week, Torres said.

Quarantine leads to fewer jail staff

On June 1, officials tested about 43 sheriff’s department workers and about 12 Raymondville police patrolmen and detectives who help transfer inmates to the jail.

Then last Thursday, officials tested 39 inmates.

“Everybody’s worried,” Maj. Andres Maldonado said at the sheriff’s department.

Officials have ordered jailers who have contracted the virus and those awaiting test results to quarantine.

Now, Maldonado, who declined to release staff numbers, said he’s working with fewer jailers — “enough to cover the shift.”

Last week, Torres said the county had hired a company to “deep-clean and decontaminate” the building whose interior conduction limits contact between jailers and inmates.

Meanwhile, Maldonado said inmates testing positive were being isolated in cells while others remain in their pods in the jail with a 94-bed capacity.

Concerns of community spread

At City Hall, Mayor Gilbert Gonzales was bracing for the outbreak to spread into the community.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Since Saturday, health officials have confirmed five new county cases, including those of two boys, a teenage boy, a woman in her 50s and a woman in her 60s, boosting the county’s total number of COVID-19 cases to 42.

Like Torres, Gonzales urged residents to take precautions, including following social distancing guidelines, limiting gathering sizes and wearing facial coverings.

“We have to take care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors and all those around us,” Gonzales said. “At this moment in time, that’s called respect. We have to respect our health.”

Meanwhile, many residents expressed concern that released inmates, who are requested to self-quarantine, could spread the virus within the community.

“Everybody’s concerned,” Municipal Judge Felicita Gutierrez said. “You have people coming in and out of jail.”

Gutierrez said she’s giving personal recognizance bonds to defendants charged with misdemeanors to keep them out of the jail.

“If they come up with the money to bond out or if it’s their time to be released, they’re going to be released,” she said.

“All the responsibility is on them,” she said, referring to officials’ request inmates self-quarantine.

Meanwhile, officials have closed the jail to inmates’ visitors.

“All inmate visitation remains closed and all visitors will continue to be required to be screened,” a press release stated, adding officials will continue taking visitors’ temperatures.


State Health Department COVID-19 testing

• 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 8-13

• June 8-9 — Sebastian Fire Station

• June 10 — Lyford Fire Station

• June 11 — Port Mansfield

• June 12 — Lasara

• June 13 — San Perlita Fire Station