Sheriff, chiefs say COVID impact minimal in their departments

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Cullman Police Department Honor Guard members Lt. Jeff Warnke, Sgt. Adam Walker, Officer Kyle Foshee and Sgt. Todd Craig, wearing department-issued face masks, are seen at the opening of the Cullman County Fair Oct. 8, 2020. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN COUNTY, Ala. – A Cullman County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant requested citizens attending this week’s Colony Town Council meeting to “Be in prayer for us. Got the COVID stuff going on. We have been hit hard . . . We were blessed the very first part of this year; none of the guys were getting it. We had like one case in our jail. The jail has been phenomenal.”

The officer continued, though, “But now, our patrol (division) since August, all of a sudden, we’ve had a flare-up, which means we’re having guys getting quarantined and making us short. We’re already short-handed; I’ll be straight up with that, so please forgive us if our call time is there. We want to respond; it is frustrating to us when our call volume is up, and we can’t get to where we need to go.”

Considering community concerns about the availability of emergency response, The Tribune asked the heads of Cullman County’s law enforcement community how their agencies are doing in the face of COVID-19.

Cullman County Sheriff’s Office

After Tuesday evening, the obvious starting point was the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Matt Gentry. According to the sheriff, the situation is not as dire as the lieutenant’s statement might lead one to believe.

Gentry told The Tribune, “For us at the sheriff’s office, so from March to now, we’ve had approximately seven employees that have tested positive for COVID. And then we’ve had one inmate that’s tested positive, since March to now.

“We’ve, from March till now, our measures have never stopped. Of course, we provide all our employees with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. We at the jail, because that’s one of our top concerns- because we have 320 people on a daily average that live there- we check temperatures four times a day in the facility. We deep clean our facility twice a day; we have cleaned it so much that the paint’s coming off the walls. And we have a 14-day quarantine on all inmates that will be coming into our facility to stay. And on the sheriff’s office side, when we’re open for business, we’re cleaning every hour on the hour.”

If an inmate in the jail tests positive, according to the sheriff, “Of course, they would be seen by the medical staff of the facility and quarantined throughout that 14-day period, and then would have to be tested negative before they could be moved somewhere inside the facility, the same as we would an employee that tested positive; they would be quarantined until they had a negative test to come back to work.”

Gentry concluded, “One of the things I’ve been very proud of is the deputies and all of the staff of the sheriff’s office have been very diligent, whether it’s washing hands, hand sanitizer, masks; you know, everything that we have to deal with- because we come in contact with numerous, numerous people daily. And so, for us, keeping the community safe and ourselves safe is very important, and we know the effects that this is taking on our community, and the impact that it’s had. 

“One thing that I want to say is that we’ve been very blessed to live in Cullman County. Since March, the citizens have come out and supported us at the sheriff’s office, whether it’s bringing us food, sending us cards and just telling us ‘thank you’ for day in and day out, the things that we’re dealing with, not only with COVID but other things across the nation. We have the very best citizens in Cullman County in the state of Alabama, and we’re blessed to live in Cullman. The impact of this, you know, it’s taken a toll on every citizen in Cullman County since this has come about, since March.”

Gentry has talked many times about his staff being undermanned and challenged to respond to more than 60,000 calls per year, even before COVID, and has pushed for larger allowances from the County budget to hire more patrol and jail deputies. Even the lieutenant attending the Colony meeting invited interested residents to apply for jobs with the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff said that some officers are picking up overtime to fill shifts, but that those shifts are covered and that COVID has not compromised his office’s ability to perform its duties.  

In a separate interview Friday afternoon, Gentry addressed whether sheriff’s deputies routinely wear masks.

“If they’re in a confined environment, of course,” he said. “We give our guys gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. If they’re in a confined environments, of course the recommendation is to wear a mask, if you can’t socially distance. If you go to a private business, and it is their requirement to wear a mask, of course we wear a mask. It really just depends on the situation a whole lot with us because, again, if I’m outside and I can socially distance, there’s no requirements for a mask. For us, it depends on the environment.”

Gentry said the CCSO lets people do reports over the phone and also, “If it’s a non-emergency, we’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s step outside,’ weather-permitting. That way there’s air flow and all of that. We’ve continued the same practice since March.”

Hanceville Police Department

Asked if his department has had officers out with COVID, Hanceville Police Chief Bob Long said, “We have not. We have been fortunate not to . . . We’ve been pretty fortunate.”

As to his procedures, Long said, “All the officers actually have face masks; they have rubber gloves. We have a disinfectant they can use to spray down their cars and so forth. And then, we’ve sprayed down the jail, and if we have anybody that has fevers and stuff, we’ve got thermometers to take their temperatures and things like that. We just try to stay on top of it the best we can.”

As to inmates in Hanceville’s municipal jail, Long reported, “They seem to be doing well. We’ve not had anybody that I know of test positive for COVID.” The chief added with a hint of humor, “Of course, we’ve had a couple say they had it, to try to keep from being arrested or being sentenced. We frequently have the chest pains, the heart attack, the kidney failure, other numerous common ailments that people sometimes use to try to get out of jail.”

Cullman Police Department

Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper is a strong proponent of mask wearing, and as such, his officers follow suit. As with sheriff’s deputies and Hanceville officers, CPD officers have been issued face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“They know they need to wear them,” he said of the masks. “If they see me coming, and one of them happens to have one hanging under their nose or something, they’ll pull it up.”

Culpepper said that, as of this week, his department has two officers out due to COVID, from exposures at home.

“I tell my guys, if one of you gets it here or there from a family member at home, that’s normal,” he said, “but if a whole shift comes down with at once, I’m going to know you weren’t doing what you should be doing.”

Look for a separate article next week on the complexities of enforcing Alabama’s statewide mask mandate.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com

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Wendy Sack

wendy@cullmantribune.com