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COVID-19 Cases Triple Among County Jail Inmates

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
Forty-four of the 1,600 people housed at Allegheny County Jail had been tested for the coronavirus as of Tuesday, April 28, according to county data.

Twenty-four inmates at the Allegheny County Jail have now tested positive for COVID-19, triple the eight cases diagnosed on Sunday, according to a county website tracking the illness.

The increase has occurred despite moves by state and local officials to free 1,158 from the jail in order to prevent a coronavirus outbreak behind bars. Allegheny County Manager William McKain said in a statement that the effort to shrink the jail population continues, but Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, expects the situation to get worse.

“Even with the best mitigation practices that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], the institution is too crowded,” he said. “There is a strong probability that the spike in positive cases is just the tip of the iceberg coming to the surface.”

The county says 20 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 remained behind bars as of Tuesday evening. Three inmates had recovered.

So far, Allegheny County reports it has tested 44 of the approximately 1,600 people still incarcerated at the jail for the virus. Thirty-five staff members have also been tested, with three receiving positive results to date. Results for one inmate and four employees were pending Tuesday, according to county data.  

McKain acknowledged that “confined areas present challenges when it comes to mitigation and elimination of the spread of illness or disease.” But he added that the jail administration is following guidance from health and corrections officials at all levels of government to contain the spread of the disease.

Earlier this month, jail officials outlined measures they had taken to increase cleaning and screening and to ensure the availability of treatment at the facility. McKain noted they continue to offer updates on the jail website.

Three inmates, however, sued the county and its jail warden, Orlando Harper, over their handling of coronavirus. Grote said he and other attorneys who represent the plaintiffs are working with the county to negotiate a settlement. He would not comment on specifics.

Grote said the full scope of infection at the jail might never be known due to inadequate testing.

While McKain said the jail stood out among the states' corrections facilities for the level of detail it has provided on its response to the pandemic, he did not address a question about whether the jail would expand testing among staff and inmates.

Studies show that in the general population, anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of people with the disease are believed to be asymptomatic. Jails and prisons, however, can experience far higher rates of transmission.

Mass testing at state prison systems in Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia revealed, for example, that 96 percent of 3,277 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic, according to Reuters. And The Marshall Project, a news outlet focused on the criminal justice system, has calculated that the infection rate in U.S. prisons exceeds that of the general population by more than 150 percent.

The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, projects that 99,000 more people in the U.S. could die if more dramatic steps are not taken to reduce jail populations. The study predicts the coronavirus will take 23,000 lives in jails and 76,000 in surrounding communities. Inmates and staff, it notes, can spread the virus upon leaving corrections facilities.

The ACLU's findings are based on a model the prison-reform advocacy group developed with epidemiologists from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee, and Washington State University. The model used the Allegheny County Jail as a reference for measuring potential impacts in jurisdictions across the country. The researchers noted that Allegheny County makes detailed data on its jail population and facilities available to the public.