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Allegheny County Jail To Start Testing All Newly Booked Inmates For COVID-19

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
About 330 inmates and 130 staff at Allegheny County Jail have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Officials at the Allegheny County Jail have agreed to test all newly incarcerated people for COVID-19 upon arrival, according to court documents filed Wednesday. Attorneys for the inmates requested the change following a spike in COVID-19 cases at the jail. Roughly 330 inmates and 130 jail staff have been diagnosed with the disease since the pandemic began.

Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center and one of the inmates’ lawyers, welcomed the new testing protocol, which will take effect April 12.

“This is an important public health intervention. The county’s done the right thing in this instance,” he said.

Under existing policy, the jail quarantines new inmates for 14 days before transferring them to general population housing. They may receive a full medical assessment depending on their temperature and answers to screening questions. But starting April 12, newly admitted inmates will receive at least two COVID-19 tests over a 7-to-10-day period before their quarantine ends.

The new testing procedures represent a modification to a legal settlement the county reached in May with Grote’s organization and other lawyers who represent jail inmates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP.

The groups had sued the county and its jail warden, Orlando Harper, in federal court in April, alleging that crowding and inadequate cleaning and medical care threatened to unleash a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail.

Two weeks ago, they requested updating the settlement agreement to include intake testing. Their request noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to recommend intake testing in December to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Grote noted that tests will help jail staff to contain the virus by separating infected inmates from uninfected ones within intake housing units.

The inmates’ legal team also asked U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon to require that jail employees who are not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 to be reassigned to duties that do not involve direct contact with unvaccinated inmates. But the lawyers ultimately withdrew that request, according to an order Bissoon issued Wednesday.

In the meantime, the judge said, both parties agreed to “collaboratively ... maximize vaccination of the incarcerated population and staff” while also implementing the new intake testing procedures.

A county spokesperson said the county had no objection to the updated testing program.

Under the new rules, inmates will receive a rapid antigen test upon arrival at the jail. Those who test negative despite exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 will then receive a PCR test, which takes longer than an antigen test to generate results but is generally considered to be more accurate. The jail will also administer PCR tests to those who test positive even though they show no symptoms of the disease.

Between 7 and 10 days after admission, all inmates can receive a second antigen test, with a negative result required before moving to the general population. Those who refuse to be tested will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

“This is an important step forward in trying to reduce the presence of COVID-19 in the jail, and then hopefully transition towards a vaccination plan that can eventually eliminate the risk,” Grote said.

Jail administrators said earlier this month that they are still developing a vaccination plan for inmates, many of whom belong to Pennsylvania’s 1B vaccination priority group and therefore are not yet eligible for the shot.

Qualifying jail employees, including  health care personnel and other employees who work on health units in the jail, have already been offered the shot. About 560 of them have gotten at least one dose, according to the county. The county did not disclose how many staff were eligible to be vaccinated.

An-Li Herring:

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An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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