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30 COVID-related deaths, 400 hospitalizations averted by measures taken at Cook County Jail: study finds

Depopulating the jail and socially distancing detainees in single cells were the most effective measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus, a study by researchers at Yale and Stanford universities found.

Detainees at the Cook County Jail are seated apart while using the phones.
Detainees at the Cook County Jail are seated apart while using the phones.
Cook County sheriff’s office

Measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus at Cook County Jail saved dozens of lives and prevented hundreds of hospitalizations, researchers at Stanford and Yale universities said in a new study.

Reducing the jail’s population and holding detainees in single cells were among the most effective steps taken to contain the virus and should be used in other institutional settings, the researchers said in the study published this month in the British Medical Journal.

Those measures, as well as widespread asymptomatic testing, led to an 83% reduction of new cases at the jail over an 83-day period, the study said.

By reducing new cases, the researchers believe an estimated 435 additional COVID-related hospitalizations and 30 deaths of people held or working at the jail were prevented.

The researchers said the name of the institution studied was being kept anonymous, but officials with the sheriff’s office confirmed the subject mentioned in the research was Cook County Jail.

“Taken together, these measures not only have bearing for the correctional facility, but also for the community health systems that surround the jail,” the authors of the study wrote. “Our findings suggest that depopulation efforts should be a primary strategy for COVID-19 mitigation in jails.”

Sheriff Tom Dart called the results a vindication of his office’s efforts during the pandemic.

“It’s nice to have these studies say, ‘You were right all along, keep it up, and other jurisdictions should do it, too,’” Dart said Friday, adding that about half of correctional staff and more than 1,000 detainees had been vaccinated.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart talks Thursday with Connie Mennella, chairperson of the Department of Correctional Health at Cermak Health Services, outside Division 11 of the Cook County Department of Corrections where jail officials appealed to the public to takes steps to stop the spread of coronavirus as the state continues to see an uptick in new cases.
Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart talks with Connie Mennella, chairperson of the Department of Correctional Health at Cermak Health Services, last November outside Division 11 of the Cook County Department of Corrections.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Early in the pandemic, the jail was labeled a “hot spot” for the COVID-19, though the sheriff’s office has long contended its numbers were higher than other facilities because of its early and aggressive testing of detainees.

Advocates for detainees sued the sheriff’s office in federal court, leading a judge to issue a series of mandates requiring social distancing of detainees at the jail and requiring officials to provide additional access to hygiene products.

Since the pandemic began, 10 detainees at the jail, a sheriff’s deputy and four correctional officers have died from complications related to the virus, according to the latest figures posted to the sheriff’s office’s website.

In November, the jail saw a spike in virus cases as cases in the city and across the nation also increased dramatically, leading to renewed calls to reduce the jail’s population, which had crept back up to earlier levels.

As of Friday, the jail’s population stood at 5,396 detainees, and there were 27 detainees who tested positive for coronavirus.

Dart called early criticism of his office’s handling of the pandemic “really difficult and beyond frustrating,” but said studies since, including one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, show his office was right to “follow the data, follow the science.”

Dart said he learned to “take the hits, take the criticism ... [and] stick to the science, no matter how painful it is.”

Last spring, county officials worked together to bring the jail’s population down from 5,500 detainees to around 4,000 — the lowest level on record.

The reduced population, as well as the reopening of additional facilities on the jail’s sprawling campus in Little Village, allowed the sheriff’s office to move 66% of detainees into single cells and socially distance detainees in its dormitory-style housing areas, the Chicago Sun-Times previously reported.

Dart said he has no plans to close the expanded areas of the jail’s campus or to curtail social distancing efforts while the pandemic continues.

“Science has not not nailed down yet that even if you’ve been vaccinated, you cannot carry it and pass it on to somebody,” he said. “So for the time being, we’re going to continue.”