Negative test results help Willacy officials ease up

RAYMONDVILLE — Nearly two weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak at the Willacy County Jail infected at least 24 jailers and inmates, officials are easing up after receiving a batch of negative test results.

So far, 12 jailers and 12 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, Frank Torres, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said.

On Wednesday, 10 sheriff’s deputies and administrative staffers tested negative for the coronavirus, he said.

Now, he said, officials are awaiting 10 more test results.

“We knew the risk was there,” Torres said. “It was out of an abundance of caution that we tested everyone in the building.”

Meanwhile, five more police personnel tested negative for the virus, Police Chief Uvaldo Zamora said.

On Tuesday, five others had tested negative, he said, adding he’s awaiting two more results.

At City Hall, officials have expressed concern the patrolmen and detectives along with a crime victim’s liaison could have spread the virus there.

“I feel relieved,” Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said. “They go to City Hall and the municipal court.”

Now, state health officials are investigating the outbreak’s source.

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

Then last Thursday, officials tested the inmates.

Meanwhile, state health officials found more county residents have contracted the virus, including a woman in her 60s who became the county’s third resident to die of COVID-19-related complications.

Since last week, new cases in this rural farming county have more than doubled to 48.

“It’s spreading like wildfire,” Zamora said.

Officials believe last month’s high school graduations led to gatherings that helped spike case numbers.

“It’s also a spike with all the gatherings we’re having,” Torres said. “People are not practicing social distancing.”

On Wednesday, state health officials continued testing county residents, with 134 tested in Lyford, Torres said.

Today, the test site moves to Port Mansfield’s pavilion.

Health officials will continue testing residents free of charge through Friday while Torres plans to set up more testing sites next week.

At the jail with a 94-bed capacity, Maj. Andres Maldonado said infected inmates have been isolated from those who have tested negative for the virus.

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.

In the community, many residents are concerned released inmates could shrug off requests to self-quarantine and spread the virus.

“That’s a big concern,” Zamora said, adding as many as five inmates were released before they were tested for the virus.

At the municipal court, Judge Felicita Gutierrez said she’s giving personal recognizance bonds to defendants charged with misdemeanors to keep them out of the jail.

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.