Sixty-four more El Paso County jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, a spike that raises the total to 72 following the discovery of an outbreak earlier this week that was long feared by public health officials and civil rights advocates.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office said Thursday it discovered the initial outbreak in the jail when eight inmates were quarantined and tested ahead of being transferred to the Colorado Department of Corrections to finish their sentences in a state prison.
In addition to the 72 inmates, eight jail employees have tested positive for the highly contagious and potentially fatal disease in October, the Sherriff's Office said. In April, a jail deputy, Jeff Hopkins, 41, died of complications from coronavirus. His death was considered in the line of duty, indicating that he contracted the disease while on the job.
In response to the outbreak, the Sheriff's Office said it plans to test all inmates and employees within a week, but warned that the threat of further infection will continue to rise over the next several weeks. Staff will also provide personal protective equipment to inmates, a news release stated.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March, criminal justice advocates and public health officials warned about the potential for disaster as the virus spreads through jails, where inmates are kept in close quarters and social distancing is nearly impossible.
Prior to the latest outbreak, the Sheriff’s Office did not test inmates who didn't have symptoms, Sheriff Bill Elder previously told The Gazette, saying that “false negative” results could muddy the jail’s efforts to corral the virus.
“If somebody is sick, but we test them too soon, we can get a false negative,” Elder said.
On Thursday, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said inmates who answered affirmatively to screening questions were isolated from other inmates, adding that testing was expensive.
“We’ve gone six months with having three positive cases and this has all seemed to stem from those eight inmates who were non-symptomatic, who tested positive and all of this now, you can see the ripple effect of eight positive inmates in a jail setting,” Kirby said.
None of the infected inmates have needed to be been hospitalized, so far, according to the Sheriff's Office. All are being treated at the jail by its medical provider, WellPath. The infected inmates have been isolated and all employees and inmates who have had direct or indirect contact with them have been contacted, the Sheriff's Office said in a news release, noting that 112 staff members were tested Wednesday.
"This current COVID situation is the top priority of Sheriff Elder and the staff at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office," Kirby said in the release. "In March, we put in place emergency operating plans for just this circumstance. We were more than prepared. We will be making significant adjustments to how we operate the facility to combat this outbreak," she said.
The outbreak in the county’s jail coincided with the state prison system’s second-largest outbreak at Fremont Correctional Facility near Cañon City, where 356 inmates and 24 workers have been infected, data shows. The spiraling number of cases marks a more than fourfold increase in the past week.
A 58-year-old inmate died in a hospital Wednesday, about two weeks after he was transferred from the facility, a state prison spokeswoman said.
State prison officials had warned that numbers could grow amid prisonwide testing launched after a single inmate tested positive for the virus Oct. 6.
The spike in infections within Colorado’s jails and prisons doesn’t come as a surprise to civil rights advocates who have arguing for months that jail populations need to be reduced by releasing nonviolent offenders to prevent outbreaks.
Denise Maes, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, called the outbreak “predictable” due to the rise in COVID-19 cases in the community.
“I think in both jails and in prisons, epidemiologists have been telling all of us that jails and prisons are a virus’ delight,” Maes said. “They are going to take hold in areas where you have close quarters, you have no ability to really follow CDC guidelines, so the movement has to be toward depopulating.”
Maes, citing the jail’s efforts to reduce populations earlier in the year, said reducing the jail population is key to curtailing further spread of the virus.
“Of course the best answer to this problem is to decarcerate, to continue that momentum toward depopulating, which I know Sheriff Elder is 100% supportive of that,” she said. “I just don’t want them to lose any steam over moving in that direction.”
Earlier this year, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reduced the population at the jail by more than a third, from an average daily population of roughly 1,500 to less than 1,000.
As of Thursday, the jail’s population was 1,190, records show.
Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director of El Paso County Public Health, said he expects the number of positive cases in the jail to climb, adding that the infection rate was about 80% among the inmates tested in the last week.
The inmates who tested positive were from open dormitory-style cells, as well as those in single cells, he said.
“In the wards where we don’t have positive cases or we have a limited number of positive cases gives us hope that in those cohorts the positivity rate will be much lower, but this is a sneaky virus,” Kelly said.
“When 40% of people are asymptomatic … you can be shocked when you test everybody and who ends up having it. I think the biggest takeaway from this, from the public health perspective, is when we have climbing community rates and transmission, this is inevitable.”
In El Paso County, about 5% of people who test positive for the virus require hospitalization, Kelly said. If the outbreak continues to grow among inmates and sheriff’s employees, it could affect hospital capacities, he said.
“We need to make sure that we have the beds available, the proper staffing for them and the appropriate security for the hospital staff,” Kelly said.
Since March, the health department has been working with the jail and has worked with staff to write up policies to help mitigate the spread of the virus, he said.
“Obviously this was going to happen at some point,” he said. “Unfortunately this particular time, the virus got out before we had the opportunity to corral it.”
The outbreak has the potential to impact several pockets of the community, including Sheriff’s Office employees, county maintenance workers and anyone inside the city’s courthouse who may have had contact with a person who tested positive for the virus.
“This is just one more challenge in a series of challenges,” Kelly said.