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New CDC review finds Cook County sheriff, staff successfully stemmed rising tide of COVID-19 cases at jail

Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau and Annie Sweeney

The Cook County Jail successfully beat back its outbreak of COVID-19 even as the virus spread dramatically outside its walls, according to a new paper authored by medical officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various county offices.

Early in the pandemic, the jail had “one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in a congregate setting described to date,” according to the document.

But after expanded testing, mask-wearing, limiting detainee movement and opening up previously unused buildings to allow for greater distancing, the spread within the jail slowed down significantly compared with Chicago at large, the paper said.

While officials could not pinpoint exactly which action was most effective, the cumulative result was successful, according to the examination of the jail.

“When this thing hit, I just threw everything I could come up with (at it),” Sheriff Tom Dart told the Tribune in an interview late Tuesday after the paper was initially made public. “… it was like, no, we’ve got to find out what we can do, and we’ve got to do it in the quickest and most massive way.”

The paper has not yet undergone peer review, and its authors include medical experts from the jail’s health center and the sheriff’s office, along with the CDC and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Even to an outsider’s eye, however, the drop in COVID-19 cases at the jail is significant. In March and April, the jail counted more than 900 cases among detainees and staffers. Seven detainees died at local hospitals after testing positive.

But as of Tuesday, only 11 detainees out of about 4,800 are positive, Dart said, and eight of them entered the jail with the virus.

“We’re testing at the door now,” he said. “You could literally say being in the jail is one of the safest places to be right now.”

After widespread efforts among prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to get more detainees out on bond, the jail population dropped significantly — enough to facilitate the social distancing that was effective in slowing the virus’s spread, Dart noted.

Dart warned that the progress could be reversed if the population increases much more. There are about 438 people in county jail simply awaiting transfer to state prisons, which are still not taking new transfers due to the pandemic.

“I’ve tested every one of them, they’re in quarantine, isolation,” Dart said, “… these people are free of COVID, they’re not going to present a problem in downstate Illinois.”

The new paper also noted that jail staffers played an “important role” in bringing the virus into the jail — echoing what several activists alleged in their efforts to empty the facility.

Positive COVID-19 cases among staffers “often preceded cases in detained persons,” the CDC review states. Most of the jail’s buildings saw a staff member test positive first, and then, a median of three days later, a detainee.

Sheriff’s staffers working at the jail were screened for symptoms beginning at the end of March, and required to wear surgical masks in early April. But testing for staffers was not mandatory.

Dart said it was not within his power to force correctional officers to get tested, though his office encouraged and facilitated as much testing as it could.

“I don’t think you’re going to get case zero as far as (identifying the) one person bringing it in,” he said. “All of us felt there were multiple entry points, and the nature of this virus is so insidious.”

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com



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