When two Baltimore City sheriff’s deputies had COVID-19 symptoms late last month, they were promptly sent home from the Elijah Cummings Courthouse, a building formerly named Courthouse East.
But now that the deputies have tested positive for the coronavirus, people who work in or visit the court building and others nearby worry that not enough was done to ensure their safety.
“The deputies might have worked in Courthouse East, but did they bring anything into the Mitchell Courthouse? We don’t know,” said an attorney who asked to not be named.
Among other issues, the attorney expressed concern that health officials did not perform adequate “contact tracing” to find all the people that the deputies interacted with since they became infectious.
“This is where the rubber meets the road to ‘flatten the curve’ for infections,” said the attorney, who has knowledge of the court’s handling of the incident.
The attorney expressed concern about going back into the courthouse to file paperwork out of fear she will contract the disease.
And thinking about the deputies and clerks who work full-time in the building, the attorney said, “I’m afraid for their lives.”
But Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper said the sheriff’s office is following the advice of experts on how to handle the situation.
“We have talked to the health department about what we’ve done, asking for additional guidance, checking are we on track with what we’re doing, and getting additional recommendations,” she said.
A Class Divide
Tapp-Harper’s efforts – and the attorney’s doubts about them – are playing out across the country as workers deemed “essential” face daily exposure to potential risks.
Often lower-income workers such as nurse’s aides, grocery store clerks and janitors, these Americans have been out in public to a much greater degree than higher-income breadwinners.
That was the conclusion of a New York Times review of cellphone use since the early weeks of pandemic awareness in the country.
“Wealthier people are staying home the most, especially during the workweek,” the Times found. “Not only that, but in nearly every state, they began doing so days before the poor, giving them a head start on social distancing as the virus spread.”
In Baltimore, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young directed departments to arrange for all employees who could telework to do so. But some employees have said they are still unnecessarily forced to come to their workplaces, including staff at the City Comptroller’s office.
Courthouse Still Open
Speaking with The Brew, Tapp-Harper said the two deputies were stationed in the area of the courthouse that normally deals with evictions, which have been on hold due to the virus outbreak.
One of the deputies who tested positive went home sick on March 24, while the other left the following day, she said, noting that one deputy “pretty much couldn’t taste or smell.”
“Both of them are at home. I have communicated with both of them. They’re coming along OK, it seems,” Tapp-Harper said.
“I have communicated with both of them. They’re coming along OK, it seems,” says Tapp-Harper.
Along with the two deputies with confirmed cases, she is waiting on the test results for a deputy trainee whose girlfriend tested positive for COVID-19.
Although many services in court have been discontinued as a result of the outbreak, some remain open, like protective order services.
Deputies and others who work in the building have been told they are “essential” staff and must report to the courthouse.
Nine Deputies Self-Quarantined
Tapp-Harper said that the fire department on Thursday decontaminated “suspected areas” where the two sheriffs were, and that nine other deputies were sent home to self-quarantine because they were in the vicinity of the two confirmed cases.
The area where the officers worked is separated from the rest of the courthouse and is not where most people would walk through, according to Tapp-Harper.
“If you know the area they have, it’s like a garage area, off to the side,” she said. “It’s in the courthouse, but not really.”
The courthouse building is “filthy,” and the public and others “have to come through the same freaking doors” used by the infected deputies, says the attorney.
That did not reassure the attorney, who described the building as “filthy” and expressed lingering doubt that it is safe to enter.
“The narrative is they didn’t come out of the basement, but they have to come through the same freaking doors, and it’s airborne,” the attorney said.
Tapp-Harper said she tried to alert all those who routinely came in contact with the deputies. But she noted that the deputies also conduct patrols in their cars to assist Baltimore police, so they could have interacted with the public if someone came to their car windows to ask questions.
“There’s no way to really nail down” every exchange that may have taken place between the deputies and others, she concluded.