Public health wants everyone at jail tested. But officials resist.

The Montgomery County jail. FILE
Caption
The Montgomery County jail. FILE

About 28 inmates and five staff members at the Montgomery County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, according to public health officials, which has some people concerned that the viral outbreak at the facility is spiraling out of control.

Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County wanted everyone at the jail tested for the coronavirus, but the facility’s health care provider, NaphCare, opposed the move, saying it would not provide very useful information, according to email records reviewed by the Dayton Daily News.

Officials say reducing the jail population is the best way to limit the threat of exposure, because that will allow for social distancing.

Some community members say reducing the population is important, but so is mass testing to identify and quarantine infected inmates.

"It's important for the community to know that there is a significant and growing COVID outbreak at the jail, and it does not seem to be under control," said Ellis Jacobs, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. in Dayton. "Part of the reason they are having such a hard time getting it under control is that the for-profit contractor that is supposed to provide health services in the jail has repeatedly refused to test all of the people in the jail."

MORE: Local jail on ‘code red’ after inmate contracts coronavirus

There are currently 33 people — 28 inmates and five jail staff — who tested positive at the Montgomery County Jail, according to Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County on Tuesday.

On Monday, a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said 14 inmates and five staff tested positive for COVID-19. There were 602 inmates incarcerated at the jail on Monday.

The jail continues to reevaluate the situation inside the facility each day based on standards and recommendations from public health, the CDC, their medical provider and other groups, the spokesperson said.

The jail’s priority is to do everything it can to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among the inmate population and staff, officials said.

“The growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the jail is a direct reflection of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the community,” the spokesperson said.

Montgomery County went from an average of 10 new cases a day at the end of May to 40 new cases a day recently, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said.

In early to mid-June, Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County said it received multiple complaints that the jail was not taking proper safety measures to protect against the coronavirus, according to email messages Jacobs obtained through a public records request that he shared with the Dayton Daily News.

MORE: Montgomery County jail sees more coronavirus cases

As cases grew, Public Health said it wanted everyone at the facility tested for the coronavirus.

But Dr. Jeffrey Alvarez, the corporate medical director for NaphCare, believed that testing everyone at the jail facility was a waste of resources and labor, according to a June 10 email to public health officials from Teresa Russell, director of criminal justice outreach with the sheriff's office.

Alvarez thought testing everyone would only provide a “one point in time” count, which would not be beneficial because the jail houses more pretrial detainees than sentenced inmates, meaning it is a transient and constantly changing population, Russel’s message says.

In a June 18 email, Joyce Close, public health’s supervisor for the bureau of communicable disease, said public health officials agreed Alvarez’s response was “unacceptable” and they wanted everyone at the jail tested.

Asked about the outbreak at the jail, Public Health’s public information supervisor Dan Suffoletto told this newspaper, “Public Health can confirm there have been cases at the Montgomery County Jail, we are currently doing case investigations and discussing possible next steps.”

Jacobs said everyone at the jail need to be tested to find out who is infected and NaphCare needs to assist with that work or the county should consider pulling its contract.

Mass testing is being done at workplaces and nursing homes across the region to try to stop the spread of infection, and it would help identify who needs to be quarantined in the jail, which is a risky and dangerous setting for an outbreak, Jacobs said.

Alvarez supports testing anyone who showed signs or symptoms of illness and gives special attention to high-risk individuals and people who need medical clearance for placement in certain types of programming, according to an email to public health from Russell.

Jacobs said the jail is way too overcrowded, since it has a population of about 600 inmates when it was built to house about 443 prisoners.

The jail officials significantly reduced its population in March and April because judges and other key players in the criminal justice system worked hard to avoid locking up suspects accused of low-level and non-violent offenses, Jacobs said.

He said that worked well and can be done again to bring the numbers down.

Growing infections in the jail of course will impact incarcerated inmates, but some inmates will be released back into the community and corrections staff go home every night, meaning there is a risk they will transmit the virus to others, Jacobs said.