More than 30 test positive for COVID at local jail. Citizens demand action.

Daj’za Demmings, executive director of the Dayton Young Black Professionals, speaks at a press conference outside the Montgomery County Jail this morning. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
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Daj’za Demmings, executive director of the Dayton Young Black Professionals, speaks at a press conference outside the Montgomery County Jail this morning. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

A group of community members are calling on officials with public health, the jail, law enforcement and judges to take action to stop what they say is a rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreak at the Montgomery County Jail.

Jail officials say that they are following state and federal guidelines and taking steps to contain the virus.

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Members of the Montgomery County Jail Coalition say everyone at the detention facility needs to be tested for the coronavirus to identify infected inmates and staff members who need to be quarantined.

This demand comes after officials with Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County also pushed for mass testing at the jail.

About 26 inmates and five corrections staff members have tested positive for the illness since March, according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, and coalition members say mass testing and reducing the jail population is the only way to stop the spread of infection.

“There should be immediate COVID testing for all inmates,” said Daj’za Demmings, executive director of Dayton Young Black Professionals and a member of the coalition.

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Daryl Wilson said the jail is using best practices that are updated every day to ensure the safety of inmates and staff, and the jail is working closely with Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County to figure out the best testing methods.

“We are fully collaborating with our oversight agencies to ensure we are managing our facility in the most medically and most operationally sound way as possible,” Wilson said. “And that is done on a daily basis.”

MORE: Public health wants everyone at jail tested. NaphCare said no.

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition demands officials develop a realistic public plan for getting the outbreak at the jail under control, Demmings said.

The jail is too crowded, she said, considering that recently about 600 inmates were incarcerated at a facility built to hold 443 people.

Judges, the sheriff, law enforcement and public health have the power to limit the spread of infection by either helping decrease the inmate population or ensure mass testing, coalition members said.

Public Health has wanted everyone at the jail tested for the coronavirus for at least three weeks, and the local Board of Health should issue an order demanding the facility do just that, said Ellis Jacobs, a coalition member and an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. in Dayton.

He said the outbreak started in early June, and while cases grew slowly at first, they are now increasing exponentially.

Judges reduced the jail population earlier in the pandemic from about 800 inmates to less than 500 within weeks, Jacobs said.

He said they did that by looking closely at their dockets to identify defendants who are not a serious public safety threat and could be put on house arrest or take part in other alternatives to incarceration.

Judges could reduce the population again with similar action, Jacobs said, and police can help out by writing summons in minor cases and only taking people to the jail who are dangerous and accused of serious and violent crimes.

Also, he said, the sheriff can release inmates accused of low-level offenses or refuse to accept people at the jail who are only accused of misdemeanors and who are not dangerous.

Chief Deputy Wilson said COVID-19 cases are increasing at the jail because COVID-19 cases are increasing throughout Montgomery County.

The jail has taken robust steps to limit the chances of the virus getting into the jail from outside sources, he said, and spreading once inside the facility.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 17 current inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 and were incarcerated at the jail, Wilson said.

The jail is testing people who show symptoms and isolating sick inmates, Wilson said, as well as contact tracing and quarantining people who were around other infected people.

The jail has not done mass testing primarily because that does not really work for a facility whose population is always changing, Wilson said.

The jail population changes almost every hour, as people are released and brought to the facility, and a one-time count wouldn’t be an accurate picture of the situation at the jail even a day later, jail officials said.

“It is a revolving door,” Wilson said. “Our population is transient: You can be in there for an hour, maybe bond out and you can be released.”

Emails between Public Health officials and sheriff’s office staff revealed that public health on multiple occasions in recent weeks said it wanted everyone at the jail tested for the coronavirus.

But Dr. Jeffrey Alvarez, the chief medical officer of the jail’s medical provider, NaphCare, did not think this would be helpful.

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Alvarez told the Dayton Daily News that one-time testing of the total population is best used in facilities with a static population, like many prisons.

He said facilities like the county jail have a high rate of new people entering and exiting each day, which means a point in time test wouldn’t be very helpful.

Alvarez said NaphCare and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office are following all guidance from the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health.

“Along with enhanced intake procedures, targeted testing of symptomatic patients and thorough contact tracing has proven to be effective at managing COVID-19 within jails,” he said.

Wilson said the jail is in discussions with Public Health about the most effective ways to test and what to do with that information.

“We are open to suggestions,” he said. “We value their expertise.”

MORE: Montgomery County jail sees more coronavirus cases