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COVID-19 outbreak among inmates at MCC in Chicago among largest across the system

A federal judge points to a warden’s decision to test two floors of detainees at the Metropolitan Correctional Center for the recent spike.

Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center hold up signs asking for help during the coronavirus pandemic, Monday afternoon, April 20, 2020.
Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center hold up signs asking for help during the coronavirus pandemic, Monday afternoon, April 20, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

In the month that passed since the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center reported its first positive test of an inmate for coronavirus, the outbreak among detainees there has grown into one of the largest among Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, records show.

There have been no reported deaths, and the MCC’s numbers are still dwarfed by the hundreds reported by BOP facilities in California and Texas. Still, roughly 20 percent of the high-rise jail’s population appeared to have tested positive as of Friday. That’s based not only on court filings but also on more detailed numbers released from the Bureau of Prisons.

A federal judge, though, recently attributed the rise of cases there to a decision to test two floors at the facility. Given that only seven detainees have been hospitalized, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall wrote that “it cannot be said that the facility is not properly caring for the detainees.”

“When looking at whether the MCC can properly control the situation and treat sick detainees the focus must be on the number of symptomatic detainees and whether they are receiving the proper treatment, not on an increase in positive tests,” Kendall wrote in the order published Friday.

ACLU of Illinois spokesman Ed Yohnka said his organization is aware of the circumstances at the jail and is “exploring options in terms of what we can do.”

The Bureau of Prisons reported Friday that 110 of the more than 600 inmates at the MCC had tested positive for coronavirus, and 33 had recovered. Fourteen staff members had also tested positive, and 14 had recovered.

Though the reliability of the Bureau of Prisons’ numbers has been unclear, the agency recently began offering more detail in its daily coronavirus reports, breaking out the number of inmates and staff who had recovered.

Last week, a BOP spokesperson responded to questions about the spike at the MCC by explaining it had “begun additional testing of asymptomatic inmates to assist in slowing transmissions.” On Friday, a spokesperson confirmed the MCC is using Abbot ID NOW instruments in its testing.

Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center hold up signs asking for help during the coronavirus pandemic, Monday afternoon, April 20, 2020.
Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center held up signs last month asking for help during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Federal prosecutors continue to show support for the Bureau of Prisons in court filings, insisting “the MCC has established a comprehensive set of precautionary measures to limit transmission inside the jail.” They have said several staff members who have tested positive for coronavirus have been given medical clearance to return to work, while others have either not returned to the facility or have had limited interaction with inmates.

Prosecutors said 133 inmates and 29 staff members at the MCC had tested positive as of Wednesday.

It has been unclear how many inmates at the MCC have been tested for the coronavirus since the pandemic began. In a court filing Wednesday, defense attorney Mary Judge insisted that prosecutors should provide “comprehensive information regarding testing at the MCC,” including the total number of inmates tested. There is a hearing Monday in that case.

Another defense attorney, Ellen Domph, complained in a filing Saturday that “there is no mass testing at the MCC” and alleged a client of hers had been placed in a cell with an infected inmate who was supposed to be in quarantine.

In a series of orders Thursday and Friday, Kendall wrote the MCC’s uptick in cases occurred “after the warden chose to test all of the detainees on the two dormitory floors.”

“The vast majority of those detainees tested positive and remarkably did not show any symptoms,” Kendall wrote. “In short, the number of detainees that has tested positive does not reflect the relative seriousness of the outbreak.”

Samantha Erdell said her fiancee, Kevin Conway, was among those who tested positive on one of those floors last week. Last month, she told the Sun-Times Conway had a low blood count, and she worried whether he could beat the virus with a compromised immune system.

Prosecutors have since acknowledged Conway had severe anemia last fall, but they say he is no longer anemic. He is serving a two-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Erdell said Conway told her that some staff have been avoiding his floor, for fear of catching the virus. Another blamed Conway for his coronavirus diagnosis, she said.

“I understand that they’re prisoners,” Erdell said. “They’re still human beings. You have to have some type of compassion.”