Durham County detention officer’s death attributed to COVID-19

Durham County News
Senior Detention Officer Alexander Pettiway

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The death of a Durham County detention officer is being blamed on COVID-19, according to his death certificate.

Senior Detention Officer Alexander Pettiway died April 24 at WakeMed in Raleigh.

His death certificate lists his immediate cause of death as “COVID-19” and “acute hypoxic respiratory failure.”

Hypoxic respiratory failure is when the lungs can no longer pull in enough oxygen to the blood.

The document also lists septic shock with multi-system organ failure as a significant contributing factor to his death.

An autopsy was not performed.

On April 25, Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead released a statement following Pettiway’s death:

“Losing a member of our Sheriff’s Office family is never something you are prepared for. We will come together to support each other and Senior Officer Pettiway’s family as they deal with this great loss.”

Pettiway joined the sheriff’s office in 1996 and during that time he worked to train and mentor new detention officers, helping to shape the field training program, the sheriff’s office said.

In a letter to staff, Major Cynthia Kornegay of the detention center said, “To say he will be missed does not do justice to what any of us are feeling at this moment. Officer Pettiway was a unique, gentle soul and loved by us all.” 

On April 22, Birkhead announced six employees at the detention center had tested positive for COVID-19.

The sheriff said most worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs. He added that one employee worked in the jail, directly with some of the inmates.

Since March, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office has stopped all jail visits, started providing masks for all staff and inmates, and they have required new inmates stay in a classified area for two weeks before placing them in a pod.

Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said that the number of incidents of staff or inmates contracting the virus has been very low at county jails.

However, he said it is difficult to social distance in these facilities.

“One of the challenges is the inability to completely stay 6 feet away from all of the people at all times because of the structure of the facility,” Caldwell said. “In this case, they are fighting what amounts to be an invisible enemy.”

Caldwell said the jails are doing things like screening all employees, isolating incoming inmates, and making sure all employees have PPE or masks.

He said just recently 75 out of the 100 sheriff’s offices in the state recently requested a need for more masks.

“We were fortunate that the Division of Prisons through Correction Enterprises donated a little over 20,000 face masks to sheriff’s offices to be used across the state,” Caldwell said.

He said counties are also not holding anyone in jail unless it is absolutely necessary. In addition, he said law enforcement agencies have started issuing citations in lieu of arrests in some cases.

“That way we can hopefully limit to the extent possible any sort of community spread within the confinement facilities,” Caldwell said.

A public viewing for Alexander Pettiway is scheduled for Thursday at Walter Sander Funeral & Cremation Services from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m.

A private graveside service will be held on Friday at noon that will be live-streamed on the funeral home’s Facebook page. D

ue to COVID-19 restrictions, they will only allow 25 people to attend.

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