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In his own words: Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil calls COVID-19 'most devastating thing' in his lifetime

Posted at 1:56 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 19:01:18-04

LEON COUNTY, Fla. (WTXL) — The pandemic is impacting law enforcement agencies across our region and the Leon County Sheriff's office is not immune to the virus.

Since the start of July, several inmates tested positive in its detention center, this just days after news broke that several deputies also tested positive.

More than 700 employees with the Leon County Sheriff's office are impacted in some way by the coronavirus pandemic.

From shifts in staffing to changes in practices and policies, to make sure public safety needs are met, Sheriff Walt McNeil says the outbreak has been his biggest challenge in over 40 years in law enforcement.

"This is the most devastating thing that I've seen in my lifetime," McNeil said.

“I’ve given all of our staff days off, paid days off so they can stay safe and in their homes I think that’s helped their moral they know they aren’t going to lose any wages because of illnesses or being quarantined and we've quarantined a good number of our deputies. I've also asked my deputies to be cautious on the roads. If they don’t have to make a traffic stop, don’t make it in cases where you would do a warning. It’s not worth your exposure."

In early July, seven deputies tested positive for the virus. Tracking down the source of infection for every case has its challenges.

"That's difficult to do. I've talked to a couple deputies and they don't know," McNeil explained. "I’ve talked to one of the first sergeants that came down with it and he shared with me that he thought that doing one of the raids where a house, people were doing drugs, he told me there were like 20-30 people in the house, it was dirty environment and then 2-3 days he started to feel a little something, so he thinks he got it from that."

At least three other deputies involved in that raid also tested positive for COVID-19.

At the Leon County Detention Center, changes were made at the start of the pandemic. But still, more than 20 inmates have since tested positive and 21 correctional officers, now in quarantine, are awaiting test results.

"In our detention facility, we take it much further. We ask where have you been for the last 14 days? Have you come in contact with anybody with the virus? Do you have a cough? Do you have a fever? All the symptoms we ask about," McNeil said. "And for prisoners that we bring into our detention facility, we set them aside for 14 days, even though they answer those questions and they have no symptoms, for 14 days before they go into general population they're isolated."

The detention center, which houses at least 900 inmates, works with an independent lab to test inmates and staff. They get test results back in at least 48 hours.

Now, all inmates are supplied with a face mask.

The Sheriff expects more challenges as the number of positive cases continues to grow as the calls also grow for Governor DeSantis to roll back our state's reopening.

“The openings have been somewhat disappointing to me because I got to put my deputies in harm's way with these openings that are taking place," said McNeil. "I suspect I don’t have all the facts the governor have, but with the facts that I have I surely wouldn’t be opening things up as widely as we are right now.”

Sheriff McNeill says mental health is another huge factor as we all work to rebound from the pandemic. He's working to create a behavioral sciences program to help provide resources to his staff and deputies.

They're also leveraging the use of technology, like Zoom meetings to conduct investigations, like reports of thefts in homes, to limit exposure between deputies and the community.