Lawsuit filed against public health about COVID in jail

A local group has filed a lawsuit against public health and the health commissioner demanding they take action to address the spread of the coronavirus at the Montgomery County Jail.

A legal complaint filed Tuesday accuses Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County and Health Commissioner Jeff Cooper of failing to promptly diagnose and control the virus at the jail.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmates at the jail and Leaders for Equality in Action, claims that public health “inexcusably” has not fulfilled its clear legal duty under Ohio law and must take the medical steps necessary to get the outbreak under control and protect inmates and staff.

A spokesperson for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said the jail is fully committed to the health and safety of inmates and staff during this pandemic.

“We know that there are questions and concerns among family and friends of loved ones inside our facility,” the spokesperson said. “The management of COVID-19 has been a fluid situation and we can expect to continue updating policies and procedures as national and state best practices for correctional and detention facilities are modified.”

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

On Tuesday, attorneys with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Dayton filed a Mandamus action in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court that claims public health has a legal obligation to study and record the prevalence of disease within its jurisdiction.

The complaint also says under law public health is required to provide prompt diagnosis and control of communicable diseases.

The lawsuit alleges that public health has failed to do this at the county jail in downtown Dayton, where 45 people have been infected with COVID-19, including 37 inmates and eight corrections staff, court documents state.

The sheriff’s office confirmed these tallies, but noted that 31 inmates have tested negative for COVID-19. At the beginning of this month, there were about 600 inmates housed at the jail.

MORE: Public health wants everyone at jail tested. Officials resist.

Jail officials have said they follow federal, state and other relevant guidelines and use best practices to limit cases and potential exposure to the virus.

But in recent weeks, a group of community members, including attorneys with ABLE, have called on the jail and sheriff’s office to do mass testing and reduce the jail population to try to slow the spread of infection.

They also have urged public health officials to step in and require the jail to test all corrections staff and inmates for the coronavirus. They say this would help identify infected individuals, who should be quarantined.

The lawsuit claims inmates’ and jail employees’ lives are at risk if public health does not meet its mandatory duty of immediately diagnosing and controlling the virus.

Public officials declined to comment on the pending litigation, which was filed on behalf of Leaders for Equality in Action, a coalition of local faith and community organizations, and Michael Dempsey, an inmate at the jail facility.

Dempsey, who has not been tested for COVID-19, is scared he will get ill while incarcerated, the complaint states, and many inmates at the jail who have likely been exposed to the virus also have not yet been tested.

Jail officials and representatives of NaphCare, the jail’s medical provider, so far have resisted calls for mass testing by public health officials and community members, claiming it would not be very beneficial or helpful.

The jail facility has a large transient population with high turnover, meaning inmates are entering and exiting daily, the sheriff’s spokesperson said.

Officials have said mass testing would be a one-point-in-time count, that wouldn’t be accurate hours and days later.

As of July 14, the jail had nine inmates in custody who tested positive for COVID-19 and who are currently isolated and 1 staff member who has tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently in self-quarantine, the spokesperson said.

“We are fully collaborating with our oversight agencies to ensure that we are managing our facility in the most medically and operationally sound way possible,” the spokesperson said. “Our state oversight agencies have agreed with our current policies and procedures. These practices are also consistent with how jails in eight surrounding counties are managing their operations during the pandemic.”

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