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COVID Infections Among Allegheny County Jail Staff Rise, Even As Inmate Cases Remain Steady

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Although no Alleghey County Jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 18, activists worry the facility could become a breeding ground for the disease.

Officials at the Allegheny County Jail announced Monday that 10 jail employees were diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past weekend, with another 50 quarantined. Since March, some 33 staffers at the jail have tested positive for the virus.

"These positive cases are believed to have been as a result of community exposure and are not exposures from the workplace," said a statement from the jail's warden, Orlando Harper.

Indeed, it's been more than three months since anyone housed at the jail has tested positive. Since Aug. 18, the number of inmates diagnosed with the condition has been pegged at 38, all of which have since recovered. The jail reports no active cases among those currently incarcerated, and according to a county website, as of Nov. 22, there were no tests pending for those incarcerated, while eight staffers were awaiting test results.

Jail leadership credits the lack of new cases among prisoners to its careful adherence to health and safety guidelines. But critics suspect that inmates are not being tested frequently enough.

The jail’s chief deputy warden of healthcare services, Laura Williams, said the jail has managed to ward off the disease among the incarcerated by taking all necessary precautions.

In addition to consistently cleaning the facility, screening staff for symptoms, and limiting visits, Williams said in a statement, “People are wearing masks, washing their hands and remaining physically distanced.”

“We continue to enforce and reinforce all [public health] recommendations and these measures have been upheld by our hardworking, essential employees and dedicated staff. They work continuously to ensure the safe management of this facility and all those who are in it,” Williams wrote.

But prisoner-rights advocates noted that jails and prisons elsewhere have emerged as hotspots for the disease. In fact, prisons across the country have experienced a record surge in infections this month, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is battling a recent spike in cases.

“It is not plausible that there have been zero positive cases in the jail since August,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, which sued the county and jail officials in April for their alleged mismanagement of the coronavirus.

Under a consent order in May, the jail agreed to implement additional safeguards against the virus. And today, the jail tests inmates if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 or if they’re transferred to another correctional facility.

Activists, however, have implored officials to go further by administering COVID-19 tests to everyone housed at the facility. An Allegheny County Council bill that would have mandated such mass testing failed in a July vote.

Since March, the jail has administered about 650 tests among inmates. About 1,700 people were being held at the facility Tuesday.

Grote fears that, without more testing, asymptomatic cases could run rampant and put vulnerable inmates at risk.

“With COVID-19, there have been instances where they've done mass testing in jails and prisons and found hundreds of cases they wouldn’t have detected otherwise,” he said.

“We’re testing when appropriate,” Williams countered. “Positive cases are isolated. We perform contact tracing and quarantine those individuals.”

Williams has previously said broader-based testing would be logistically impractical, while the county health department’s chief epidemiologist has said it would not help to contain the virus. And while some public health experts recommend "routine institution-wide diagnostic testing" at correctional facilities, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention advises officials only to consider taking such action if they conclude contact tracing would be impractical or if they suspect the disease has spread widely and have the resources to conduct mass testing.