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Sheriff Dart warns second wave of COVID cases threatens efforts to contain virus inside jail

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart standing outside Cook County Jail Thursday appeals to the community to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which he says will impact the facility. The jail has a 1 to 2% positivity rate, Dart said.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Thursday warned that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the city and state could threaten his office’s efforts to bring the pandemic under control at the Cook County Jail.

“The jail is part of the community,” Dart said. “There are ... amazing people who work here that live in the community and come back and forth. Detainees who come into our custody come from the community.

“And so, if the community is not under control, if the community is not being serious about masks and social distancing and COVID is spreading, it will impact us negatively, there’s no two ways about it.”

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.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Standing in front of Division 11 of the jail, Dart and Department of Correctional Health Chair Dr. Connie Mennella, urged the public to stay home as much as possible and take precautions to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

On Thursday, state public health officials reported 12,702 new cases and 43 deaths. Wednesday’s death count was 145 — the worst death toll since May.

Daily case counts have also tripled since the end of the state’s first wave, with Illinois announcing 10,000 or more cases for the last seven days and a statewide testing positivity rate of 12.6% as of Thursday.

Despite the soaring caseload outside the jail’s walls, the facility’s positivity rate remains significantly below that of the public at between 1 and 2%, Dart said.

But the sheriff’s office also reported an uptick in the number of positive cases that began last week. Figures released by the sheriff’s office Thursday show 91 detainees currently test positive for the virus — a level not seen since the end of May. The sheriff’s latest numbers also show 63 members of the jail staff recently tested positive for the virus.

Seven detainees, a sheriff’s deputy and four correctional officers have died from complications of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Most recently, 31-year-old correctional officer Richard Santiago died Oct. 20 from complications related to the coronavirus.

A graph tracking coronavirus cases at the Cook County Jail since March shows an increase in cases in the past week at the facility.
Cook County sheriff’s office

Most detainees who test positive for the coronavirus are coming in from the community where they contracted COVID-19 and being discovered at intake, Dart said. Aggressive testing, contract tracing and isolating detainees who test positive has allowed officials to keep the virus from spreading rapidly in the jail’s general population, which is increasing again, Dart said.

Currently, about 5,400 detainees are being held in the facility, slightly less than before the pandemic. Efforts were made in the spring to release more detainees on house arrest to reduce the jail’s population when more than 300 detainees tested positive for the virus, even though the population was lower.

“What it took, and what it’s taking, to keep numbers down is monumental,” Mennella said Thursday. “Once COVID hits a jail environment, a living unit, it can spread easily, as you can imagine.”

Alexa Van Brunt, an attorney representing detainees in an ongoing lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and its coronavirus protections, said she is also concerned about the jail’s rising population and the implications it has for virus transmission. Advocates would like the sheriff’s office to release more information about its testing procedures and continue efforts to reduce the jail population through alternatives to detention, she added.

“We agree this is a community problem; it’s not like there is a wall between the jail and the community when it comes to this virus,” Van Brunt said. “Masks alone aren’t going to cut it.”

Correctional Officer Richard Santiago, 31, died from complications of COVID-19 on Oct. 20.
Elms Funeral Home

Employees and visitors’ temperatures are checked when entering the facility and employees are told to go home or stay home if they feel sick, a sheriff’s office spokesman said. However, he acknowledged that the asymptomatic spread of the virus was a cause for concern among officials, especially as the positivity rate rises outside the jail.

The jail resumed outdoor detainee visitations over the summer. Masked detainees are kept at least 15 feet from masked visitors, who are also offered coronavirus testing.

“Since June, we’ve had no incidents of spread because of the visitation,” Dart said.

The sheriff’s office has conducted more than 16,000 tests since the pandemic began, including random and repeat testing, Dart said.

“So many things we have been doing and continue to do have been done because our population has been relatively under control,” Dart said.

“As the place gets more crowded, it gets very, very difficult.”

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