Dart touts efforts, CDC study noting drastic drop in coronavirus cases at Cook County Jail
After hundreds of detainees tested positive in the spring, the jail now stands as a model in how to contain the virus, the sheriff said.
Tom Dart Wednesday praised his office’s efforts to contain the coronavirus at Cook County Jail, citing a new study spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that credited the sheriff with successfully reducing the number of positive cases at the Southwest Side facility.
The jail — once named a top U.S. hotspot with hundreds of detainees infected — now stands as a model for other institutions on how to curb it, Dart declared.
“We not only bent our curve, we killed off the curve,” Dart said.
As of Wednesday, only 11 detainees had the coronavirus. Dart noted that eight of those detainees tested positive before being admitted into the jail, which currently has a population of under 5,000.
Since March, seven detainees, three correctional officers and one sheriff’s deputy died from complications related to COVID-19, according to Dart’s office.
The CDC study, carried out in conjunction with city and county health officials and researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, concluded that Dart’s “effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak at [the jail] demonstrates the need for dynamic and aggressive application of intervention strategies, but also shows how timely response can reduce case counts and prevent morbidity and mortality in correctional or detention facilities.”
But what Dart and the CDC study, didn’t mention is the federal lawsuit filed by detainees and civil rights groups, which resulted in a court injunction mandating aggressive social distancing, widespread testing and access to personal protective equipment and hygiene products.
Alexa Van Brunt, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center who is representing the detainees, called the CDC’s omission of the suit’s role in the decline of cases “irresponsible.”
“The decrease in infections directly aligns with the timing of those court orders,” Van Brunt said.
The sheriff’s office, which is currently seeking to overturn the injunction on appeal, called the claim “laughable.”
“Virtually all of the measures the CDC found to be effective were already in place prior to the lawsuit, which even the court acknowledged,” sheriff’s spokesman Matthew Walberg said in an emailed statement. “If anything, the plaintiffs’ attorneys only contribution was to hinder our ability to do more, forcing our staff to divert valuable time and energy to respond to their baseless complaints. These people will never cease to perpetuate their lies and alternative world.”
Van Brunt said U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly’s decision not to suspend the injunction in June while the sheriff appeals is evidence the court still believes the orders are necessary.
“To say over and over again that they were doing everything necessary lies in the face of the facts and the court’s findings,” Van Brunt said. “There is still a preliminary injunction in place against the sheriff because of his failure to do enough on his own to protect lives.”
Dart Wednesday stressed that his office “has stuck with science from day one.”
“The CDC itself said our work was extraordinary [and] beyond effective,” Dart said, adding that there were still many challenges in maintaining control over the spread of the coronavirus.
There still could still be a potential rise in detainee population because of summertime violence and there are more than 400 current inmates who should be in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, which halted transfers to state facilities in March, Dart said.
Dart said his office is currently in the process of figuring out how to reopen the jail where in-person visitations started again last month.
“It has had a remarkable impact on the mood of the entire jail,” Dart said. “Because of all that work, we were the first jail in the country to reinstate visitation.”