El Paso County jail

Photo from El Paso County jail, where nearly 700 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, setting state record for largest outbreak since the onset of the pandemic.

Nearly 700 El Paso County jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the sheriff's office announced Tuesday, making Colorado Springs home to the state’s largest outbreak among inmates since the pandemic started.

The fast-spreading virus has infected 690 inmates out of 1,229 in custody, marking a nearly tenfold increase in five days and surpassing all other outbreaks in penal institutions reported by state public health officials, data show.

The new totals were disclosed in a news release and on the sheriff's website Tuesday evening after days of testing assisted by state public health officials and members of the Colorado National Guard. The grim record comes amid a national upswing in coronavirus infections, including in El Paso County, which faces new state-mandated restrictions on the size of gatherings in restaurants and other businesses — set to take effect Wednesday — after an increase in infections and hospitalizations.

Fifty-one sheriff’s employees have also contracted the disease, the agency stated. Among them are jail security workers, patrol deputies and contractors for WellPath, the jail’s for-profit medical contractor, according to information obtained by The Gazette.   

No inmates or employees have been hospitalized, sheriff's spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said. Inmates and employees have displayed "varying symptoms," and some are asymptomatic, she said.

Since March, the sheriff's office has reduced the jail population, halted visits from family members and taken other precautions to head off mass infections, only to be confronted with a fast-moving outbreak within the past week. 

"It’s something that we have been able to keep at bay for six months, but unfortunately we are where we are right now, and we are taking every precaution and doing everything we can to keep the inmates and staff safe,” she said.

Masks and hand-sanitizer without alcohol have been distributed to inmates, Kirby said. 

All inmates have been tested. Those who were negative will be retested Friday to check for continuing spread and to rule out the possibility of skewed results. 

The sheriff's office has the option of requiring deputies to work overtime to offset temporary staffing shortages because of the outbreak, but that hasn't been necessary so far, Kirby said.

"We are pulling from other areas as we need to and doing things with scheduling to adjust in decrease in manpower," she said.

The exponential increase at the jail in Colorado Springs — where an outbreak was first detected Oct. 26 with eight cases — pushes its total well beyond that of Sterling Correctional Facility in northern Colorado, which previously held the record for largest COVID-19 outbreak among prisons and jails in Colorado.

A cumulative total of 607 Sterling inmates have tested positive since mid-April, including three who died of the virus, according to a state public health database. Sterling has 20 inmates still listed as ill, according to Colorado Department of Corrections data.  

The third-largest outbreak among inmates is at the Fremont Correctional Facility near Cañon City, where 561 inmates have tested positive and one inmate has died since Oct. 12, state prisons spokeswoman Annie Skinner said Tuesday. She said 201 cases remain active.

Colorado identified 13 new coronavirus outbreaks within jails, prisons and halfway houses in October as the state grapples with widespread transmissions.

The El Paso County jail has until now avoided large outbreaks among inmates, but has not been spared the ravages of the disease.

Prior to the current outbreak, three inmates and 11 sheriff's employees contracted coronavirus, including Jeff Hopkins, 41, a jail deputy who died of complications from his illness, which Sheriff Bill Elder said was passed to him by fellow employees.

Early in the pandemic, the jail slashed its inmate population by a third, reducing the daily average of roughly 1,500 inmates to less than 1,000. But the number of inmates held in custody is on the rise, with more than 1,200 locked up in recent days.

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