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Public Health

Jails can be super-spreaders for COVID – but Texans kept in the dark about what's happening inside

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The Texas Commission on Jail Standards no longer publishes daily COVID-related data for Dallas County Jail and jails across the state.

Jails have a well-earned reputation for being super-spreaders for infectious diseases. The tight quarters put inmates and guards in close proximity. The guards go home every day, and people are often behind bars for a relatively short time before they go back into the community.

“People think of jails as apart from their communities but really, it’s not,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Jail Project. Gundu, who lives in Harris County, said the jail there is “completely tied up with the community.”

Yet the numbers of infections and tests among inmates and staff are no longer regularly published by the state. And while communities cope with the more-infectious omicron variant, anecdotal evidence says jail policies around testing and medical treatment are unclear at best.

This comes as the omicron variant of COVID is ripping through Texas. The state reported Thursday over 20 percent of COVID-19 tests were positive. Hospitalizations have risen more than 5,000 in two weeks.

For much of the first 15 months of the pandemic, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards had published daily data for several jails across the state, including Dallas, Tarrant, Denton, and Bexar. Data included the number of inmates and jailers with pending or positive COVID-19 tests, the number of inmates and jailers quarantined, and the number of confirmed deaths related to COVID-19.

That stopped on June 14, 2021.

“We stopped collecting the information in order to repurpose staff to assisting in carrying out other functions,” said TCJS spokesman Will Turner in an email. He said the executive director of the commission, Brandon Wood, was unavailable for an interview.

“Jails still report positive COVID cases to their local health department,” Turner said.

While data may be less available, there is evidence jails across Texas are struggling with COVID. Jails in Harris, Starr, Hidalgo and Smith counties, among others, have suspended visitations.

“The reason we need this data is to understand how COVID is spreading and what we can do to prevent the spread,” Gundu said. “If we don’t have this basic data, how are policymakers expected to respond?”

In North Texas, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office released infection numbers this week in two Facebook posts.

“We will share current COVID information on our Facebook page until the recent wave of new cases begins to drop,” said Wednesday’s post, which did not detail test numbers, infections among staff, or vaccination rates.

KERA reached out to the Tarrant County Health Department, which referred inquiries to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s chief of staff said the number of COVID-19 infections in the jail Thursday was down to 118, but any other data would require a public information request. She said no one was available for an interview.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to emails and a call from KERA seeking an interview and data on infections, vaccinations, and tests. Dallas County Health and Human Services received KERA’s inquiry but did not provide any data by the end of the day Thursday.

Timothy Gutierrez has been in Dallas County Jail since he was booked on November 19th. Shortly before Christmas he experienced sinus pressure, a headache, and fatigue, leading him to leave work and spend a few days in bed. He put in a request to see a nurse, and then asked for a COVID test at the nurse station. Gutierrez said the clinic staff told him he didn’t have the virus. He left without getting a test.

Then, last week, Gutierrez developed a bad sore throat. Two of his fellow inmates fell very ill and were taken out of his pod. At one point, Gutierrez said, staff came through to test inmates, but not all of them – even after the jailer asked.

Gutierrez still hasn’t gotten a test, which he thinks may require another formal request. (Those cost $10 each.) But he’s not sure what would be the point of testing one person.

“If the whole pod is on watch for it, why not test the whole pod anyways, to see if, you know, it’s still in here or not?” Gutierrez told KERA.

Gutierrez’ pod in the jail has between 40 and 50 people. He doesn’t know who has COVID or who has been tested, but many inmates have symptoms. The Dallas Observer reported last week about 1% of inmates in the Dallas County Jail had either a positive or pending test result.

“Within the last few days, a lot of them have been coughing, runny nose, stuff like that,” Gutierrez said on Monday. “I don’t know if it’s just a cold or what.”

Gutierrez’ fiancé, Garland resident Danielle Benoit, is upset about the lack of information.

“I just want to know that something is going to be done,” she said. “Or if they’re just giving up on it.”

In Tarrant County, LaKeisha Hunter is being detained at the Corrections Center and complained about the time it takes to get medical care.

“I’ve requested to see medical and they have not seen me yet, and I’ve been here a month and a half so far,” Hunter told the Texas Jail Project in a phone call reviewed by KERA.

About a dozen civil rights organizations wrote a letter to TCJS in October urging the commission to restart its collection and publication of COVID data. Gundu said TCJS told them the agency no longer had the staff resources to dedicate to it, and were not required to do it in the first place.

The activist group ICE Out of Tarrant, which opposes Tarrant County’s participation in the 287(g) program, started requesting the data each week from jails in Tarrant and Dallas Counties.

Organizer Jonathan Guadian said the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, sent him estimates of $216 for a week’s worth of COVID-19 data, a cost he was unable to pay.

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office does supply data in response to Guadian’s weekly requests, but the information is less detailed than what the jail standards commission had been publishing. Guadian gets a daily tally of inmates with active COVID-19 infections, as well as the number of pending test results for inmates. But he does not get information on the number of inmates quarantined or isolated without active infections. The county says they do not track that.

Guadian is concerned the jail isn’t quarantining inmates who have been exposed to COVID-19, potentially enabling more spread of the virus. He also noted the weekly spreadsheet doesn’t have consistent data on jailers.

“Many days that I receive this information back from Tarrant County Jail, they don’t have any information to report on the jailers and their test confirmations,” he said.

The Texas Legislature could require regular collection and publication of COVID-19 data, but lawmakers do not reconvene until 2023. Gundu said county commissioners could demand more accountability from jails, as they vote on budgets for sheriff’s offices.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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