Study finds pandemic response at Cook County Jail could serve as model for other prisons, nursing homes

Chicago News

CHICAGO — While Cook County Jail was once called one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country, Sheriff Tom Dart said Wednesday they have nearly wiped out the virus.

With nearly 5,000 inmates remaining in the jail there are now only 11 positive cases among them, with all of the infected individuals detained in a special unit.

“We not only bent our curve, we killed off the curve,” Dart said.

At its peak from March 1 to April 30, Dart said there were more than 900 COVID-19 cases among detainees and staff. A total of nine people died. 

Dart said months of hard work and planning has paid off, and now those numbers have plummeted.

“We stuck with science from day one: testing, isolating, with new places to house people, social distancing, masking people; we did all that,” Dart said.

WATCH ABOVE: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and health officials discuss a new CDC study examining the coronavirus outbreak at Cook County Jail and how containment measures led to a “dramatic reduction” in the spread of the disease

Dart’s response to the spread of coronavirus in the jail became the subject of criticism and multiple lawsuits after the first cases were discovered in March.

The family of Jefferey Pendleton, the first detainee from the jail who died of COVID-19, filed a lawsuit against the county and sheriff over how he was treated in the hospital.

As inmates put up signs in their windows asking for help, activists protested outside the jail and called for the release of all inmates while claiming more could die from COVID-19. A judge also ordered the jail to implement additional measures to follow CDC guidelines.

In a new study by the CDC, experts praise the jail for its aggressive intervention strategies coupled with widespread testing. They say the combined efforts have decreased the infection positivity rate from nearly 24 percent to less than one percent now.

Nonviolent offenders were released from the jail early on in the outbreak to reduce its population, with some put on electronic monitoring. Governor JB Pritzker also signed an executive order to stop new inmates from being admitted to state prisons during the pandemic, with only a few exceptions.

Officials also implemented measures including moving inmates to single-person cells, and halting visitation and programming.

“Inmates are tested in intake while in separate housing and not allowed into the general population until a second test,” said Connie Minella, Chair of Correctional Health. “This has proven to be an important part of our containment; no other jail is doing this type of testing.”

The CDC says this plan should serve as a model to jails, prison, nursing homes and other congregate settings. Cook County Jail officials say they can’t let their guard down yet.

“The virus is still out there and as this virus is still spreading throughout this country, that concerns us we are not in a bubble here,” Dart said.

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