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Coronavirus outbreak sickens more than a dozen at Fairfax juvenile detention center

A scene at the Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center several years ago.
A scene at the Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center several years ago. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Officials said a coronavirus outbreak has sickened more than a dozen workers and residents at Fairfax County’s Juvenile Detention Center, prompting questions from staff members about the precautions taken against the virus and how its spread was handled.

Eight workers and six juveniles have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Fairfax City facility since Sept. 29, officials said, making it one of the worst known outbreaks at a local youth center since March.

Fairfax County officials notified staff and parents of the outbreak but did not publicly acknowledge it until workers reported it to The Washington Post. Three staff members said they were troubled that masks were not provided to residents before the outbreak and that classes continued at the facility after the first cases were discovered.

Robert A. Bermingham Jr., director of court services for Fairfax County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, said officials work diligently to try to keep the coronavirus out of the facility. Crews’ work includes taking the temperatures of staff and residents multiple times a day, doing additional cleanings, distributing hand sanitizer, installing spit guards and observing social distancing when possible.

New arrivals at the center are quarantined before being introduced to the general population. The center has suspended family visits but does allow lawyers, probation officers and social workers to schedule visits.

“Every measure the Health Department has recommended putting in place to mitigate the spread within the facility we’ve put into place,” Bermingham said.

Bermingham said it was accurate that masks were not provided to residents before the outbreak, but it was because officials had determined none of the nearly 30 youths housed at the facility had been outside of it for two to three weeks before the pandemic was declared in March and had since been largely confined indoors. Court hearings were also suspended.

“Our kids were, for lack of a better term, isolated in the facility and hadn’t been exposed to the outside,” he said.

Bermingham said officials focused on providing masks to staff, surmising that was the only way the virus could enter the facility. About 120 people work at the facility. He said that since the outbreak began, youths have begun receiving masks, too.

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The outbreak started Sept. 29, when a staff member notified officials that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, Bermingham said. A memo sent to staff the same day said officials had also identified a second staffer who was infected, although the two cases did not appear to be related.

Another email to staff reported some juveniles in one unit of the facility also had cold-like symptoms and were being isolated.

The following day, the Fairfax County Health Department began testing the staff and residents for the coronavirus.

On Oct. 1, staff members said they were surprised when classes went forward for many of the residents, even though the outcomes of the coronavirus tests from the day before were not known. Youths at the facility do remote learning on computers in small classrooms.

Bermingham said modified classes were held because officials believed those who might have been infected were not included.

He said the first staffers known to be infected, as well as the youths who initially experienced cold-like symptoms, were in the same unit, which was not included in the classes. That group was isolated and in a different part of the building from the center’s general population.

“We didn’t think it was necessary to disrupt the rest of the program at that time,” Bermingham said.

Since then, six juveniles have tested positive for the coronavirus in two of the center’s six units. The units have been placed in medical isolation as a precaution, Bermingham said, until testing is complete, which is expected by Thursday.

Two staff members said one of the juveniles infected was treated at the hospital before being returned to the juvenile detention center. Bermingham declined to comment on that account, saying he didn’t want to violate the privacy of the juveniles. He said that, as of Wednesday evening, all juveniles who were sick were being treated at the center.

Some of the concerns of the center staff were shared by Fairfax County Public Defender Dawn Butorac, whose office has clients at the facility. She said she has not been able to get many details about what is going on inside.

“The kids are not going anywhere — even to court — so the only way it came in is from a staff member,” Butorac wrote in an email about the outbreak. “That would lead one to believe that the appropriate safety precautions are not being followed at the JDC.”