Sheriff asks for help limiting COVID-19 spread at Chicago jail

Sheriff Tom Dart adamantly defended the "heroic" job his staff has done with containing the virus among detainees in their custody


By Javonte Anderson
Chicago Tribune

COOK COUNTY, Ill. — Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Thursday pushed back against the narrative that jail staffers were negligent in responding to the coronavirus earlier this year and pleaded with the community to follow public health guidelines for COVID-19 as cases are on the rise again across the state.

At a news conference in front of Cook County Jail, Dart adamantly defended the “heroic” job his staff has done with containing the virus among detainees in their custody. Earlier this year the sprawling Southwest Side facility had to grapple with the virus when over 700 inmates tested positive during a two-month span, including seven who died, earning the facility a label as a national hot spot.

As of Wednesday evening, 83 detainees had tested positive at Cook County Jail, along with 64 correctional officers.
As of Wednesday evening, 83 detainees had tested positive at Cook County Jail, along with 64 correctional officers. (Photo/Zbigniew Bzdak of Chicago Tribune via TNS)

“The majority of people who are positive at any given moment inside the jail are people who came into the jail positive,” he said. “There wasn’t this wild spread going on in the jail.”

Dart was sued in federal court for allegedly failing to stop a “rapidly unfolding public health disaster” at the jail, but has stood by his office’s response. Among the steps Dart took were to open an off-site care facility for detainees, move inmates to single cells to improve social distancing, and enhance testing efforts.

As of Wednesday evening, with Cook County and the rest of the state struggling with a new surge in cases, 83 detainees had tested positive at Cook County Jail, along with 64 correctional officers, officials said.

Dr. Connie Mennella, who oversees medical care at the jail, said it’s a “daunting” task to keep the virus contained among its 5,400 detainees.

“What it took and what it’s taking to keep numbers down is monumental,” she said at Thursday’s news conference.

Detainees are tested when they arrive at the jail, and are then quarantined with people who entered on the same day before being tested again prior to transitioning into the larger jail population.

Dart said the jail had found a way to safely conduct visitations outside and has a plan for every detainee before they are released.

“We talk to the house they’re going to. We talk to the people in their houses. ...We walk them through all the protocols to make sure their house is safe, their community safe. We are actively educating people about it.”

Despite the jail’s efforts, Dart says they are reliant on the community to be diligent in not spreading the virus to keep their infections down. Illinois on Thursday reported another 12,702 cases as COVID-19 has spiked anew.

“Now we’re asking the public to please, please, please help us,” Dart said. “If the community is not under control; if the community is not being serious about masks and social distancing … it will impact us negatively.”

Mennella echoed Dart’s concerns.

“We may have barbed wire; we may have brick walls … (but) what happens in the community greatly impacts the jail,” she said.

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(c)2020 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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