Updated 7:25 p.m., March 25: This reflects additional reporting from two news conferences and interviews on the challenges involved in trying to quell the coronavirus in a jail setting.
A Dallas County jail inmate who had been in custody since December tested positive for the new coronavirus, prompting concerns and an investigation by county officials about how widespread the illness might be.
Four more inmates who had been quarantined also tested positive, officials announced Wednesday.
Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown did not identify the initial inmate, who was being held on three drug-related charges, but said the man is in his 40s. During a brief news conference on Wednesday, she said that it was unclear how he contracted the virus while he was in custody. No further details were released on the other four.
The news of the potential outbreaks came after social justice groups and some officials have worried about the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in jail. Across the country, sheriffs and judges have moved to release non-violent offenders to limit the spread of the contagious respiratory disease.
“For the past two weeks, we have received numerous inquiries about COVID cases among our inmates and employees,” Brown said. “We assured you when and if it came to it, you would be notified. This is where we are today.”
The positive test for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, prompted sheriff’s officials to screen people in the same pod as the inmate.
The rest of the roughly 50 inmates who shared the pod were asymptomatic but were separated as a precaution. The jail on Wednesday was holding about 5,580 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial.
Brown said the pod area was cleaned and disinfected.
Employees who came in contact with the initial inmate were also quarantined, but officials did not provide a number for how many were affected on Wednesday.
The sheriff’s department, like other first responders and health care workers, have struggled to secure a long-term supply of protective gear such as masks and gloves, the sheriff said. She previously told county commissioners in a meeting that they had enough to last them about eight weeks.
Inmates who were released before Wednesday had not been screened, Brown said, but she added that authorities were working on a plan for future screenings upon their release.
When asked if the inmate in his 40s was at a hospital, Brown declined to comment, citing security reasons.
Amid the pandemic, Brown has tried to limit the jail population. She sent a letter on March 17 to local police agencies in Dallas County urging them to avoid arrests for low-level offenses such as marijuana possession, criminal mischief, graffiti and theft.
On Wednesday, the jail was holding 400 less inmates than it was 10 days ago.
“We didn’t try to tell anybody what to do because — I want to be clear — I worked the streets for many years,” Brown told The Dallas Morning News recently. “And so I understand firsthand that there are some circumstances where a person just has to go (to jail). But what I did is ask for their considerations.”
In other counties, some sheriffs’ responses to mitigate an outbreak have gone further.
In Harris County, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has worked with judges in recent weeks to get inmates released. In Los Angeles, inmates with fewer than 30 days remaining on their sentences are being set free.
The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday said it was “continuing to work with our criminal justice partners in an attempt to release some inmates” but did not provide specifics.
During an evening news conference, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said officials were considering issuing personal recognizance bonds — a type of bond that doesn’t require a money deposit from inmates — to accelerate the release of non-violent offenders. Jenkins said there’s also a contingency plan to open up a 114-bed jail unit on top of the George Allen Courthouse.
“This does not mean violent criminals will be let out on the street,” Jenkins said.
About a week ago, the jail also suspended in-person visits from family members and loved ones to stem the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, Jenkins announced that video visitations would be free.
Dallas County recorded 78 more known coronavirus cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 247. So far, six people in the county have died from the virus.
But a potential outbreak in a confined and often unsanitary place like the jail could be deadly, health professionals have warned.
Dr. Marc Robinson, a Houston-area physician who works with patients in jail clinics, said social distancing is nearly impossible in such a setting where people often eat and sleep in close proximity to each other.
“Jails are perfect setups for any infectious agents,” Robinson said in an interview on Wednesday.
Medical resources are often limited for those who are incarcerated.
Robinson said that jail clinics focus on an inmate’s specific care needs and…
Source Website After five Dallas County inmates test positive for COVID-19, here’s how officials res