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Mark Geouge wasn’t too worried when he found out one of his co-workers at the Yancey County Detention Facility tested positive for COVID-19 on July 7, 2020.
But as one positive case turned into two, and two turned into five, Geouge’s concerns started to mount.
“I remember us talking about (COVID-19) and then it becoming more real the closer it came,” he said.
“Nothing in the past, especially since I’ve been (at the jail), could have or would have prepared us for what was going to happen.”
Altogether, 10 of the 15 Yancey County Sheriff’s Office employees working at the jail in July 2020 contracted the virus that month, Sheriff Shane Hilliard said. None of the roughly 20 inmates housed in the jail at the time tested positive for COVID-19.
The outbreak in July 2020 was one of many reasons Yancey County Manager Lynn Austin chose to use the county’s $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay the salaries of jail workers.
Yancey will also use the federal relief money to pay the salaries of emergency service employees.
“We figured those were the two hardest-hit areas,” Austin said. “So, when we got the ARPA money, we thought that was a good way of using those funds.”
Navigating COVID while operating a jail
While a COVID-19 outbreak among more than half of Yancey County’s jail employees was the zenith of pandemic-induced difficulties for them, it isn’t the only hardship they’ve faced.
Geouge and Hilliard said the past two years have been the most challenging of their decadeslong careers in law enforcement.
Navigating shutdowns and social distancing isn’t easily done in a job that largely centers on community interactions.
“We received an inmate recently from another county, so I went and picked her up myself and brought her to the jail,” Geouge said.
“I got a phone call three hours later saying the inmate was complaining of COVID symptoms, and then she tested positive.”
Geouge didn’t contract COVID-19 from the inmate, but this situation was not a one-off, he said. There have been several times he’s been exposed or nearly exposed to COVID-19 in his job.
A COVID cluster at the Yancey County jail
The first time Geouge was in close contact with COVID-19 was during the outbreak in July 2020. He didn’t test positive for the virus then, but he still had to quarantine.
A few jail employees who did not contract COVID-19 were able to return to work after the appropriate quarantine periods, but when they got back on the job, things looked different. There were no inmates to oversee.
Immediately after the outbreak, the Yancey County Sheriff’s Office moved all currently housed inmates to other facilities in Western North Carolina, Hilliard said. They stayed at the Avery, Clay and Haywood county jails until Yancey was fully staffed about three weeks later.
With the facility vacant, virus-free staff members deep-cleaned and sanitized the jail.
Also during this time, the Sheriff’s Office installed a fresh-air circulator in the facility’s control room — where at least two jail staff members are at all times — after the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services determined the virus’s spread was likely due to the room’s lack of air circulation.
“That was like the worst-case scenario for COVID to spread,” Hilliard said about the control room’s airflow, “because there was nowhere for the virus to go to get out of the building.”
While moving inmates, installing new devices and disinfecting the jail were taxing jobs, Hilliard said having two-thirds of jail workers out with COVID had other effects on the Sheriff’s Office.
“Just the weight of worrying, it was rough,” said Hilliard, who at the time was chief deputy, second-in-command to the sheriff.
“I tried to check on every employee (who) had COVID every day and make sure they had everything they needed and medication they needed. The burden of worrying about whether somebody’s going to die from this was tough.”
None of the jail workers died from COVID-19. Only one got seriously ill from the virus, which kept him out of work for roughly a month, Hilliard said.
Using ARPA for jail salaries
After the considerable strain on the Sheriff’s Office and the Yancey County Detention Facility over the past two years, having ARPA money to pay 14 of the 16 jail workers’ salaries is a welcome relief. The money will also pay the salaries of 15 emergency service workers.
“It’ll free up that money to do other things locally,” Austin said.
“When you’re looking at (ARPA) funds, you want to put it in a project or do something with it that is going to return revenue. (The funding) is a one-time deal. It’s not something that you want to continue to have to put money into.”
As of July 31, 2021 — only about two months after receiving the first portion of ARPA money from the federal government — Yancey County had spent roughly $952,000 on staff salaries.
Using all $3.5 million would equate to an average annual salary of about $40,000 for the 29 county staff members whose pay is covered by the funds. It would also mean Yancey’s ARPA money would run out in about three years.
Austin said paying salaries with ARPA funds will allow the county to use the money that would typically pay those employees for other things, such as contributing to the Little Leaf Farms project.
Little Leaf Farms, a proposed 96-acre hydroponic lettuce farm in Yancey’s Micaville community, has been in the works since 2019.
The county is partnering with the town of Burnsville to extend water service to the farm, the 2021 Yancey County Economic Development report stated.
“We’re going to have to take out a loan for that, so this ARPA money will just offset that, and we won’t have to take out as much of a loan as we thought,” Austin said.
When completed, the farm will create as many as 100 jobs and provide an average salary of $53,700, depending on the position, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. That’s well above Yancey’s median household income, which census data shows is slightly more than $42,000.