55 inmates in Denver’s jails have tested positive for the coronavirus; 14 have been released

Fifty-five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in Denver’s two jails, though some have recovered and more than a dozen have been released.

As of Thursday afternoon, 52 of the cases have been at the Downtown Detention Center on Colfax Avenue and three have been at the county jail on Smith Road, Laura Swartz, a spokeswoman with the city’s Joint Information Center, said. Thirty-two more inmates at the downtown jail are in isolation for showing some symptoms connected to COVID-19 and are being offered a test.

The Denver jails have a higher number of cases than all of the senior living facilities tracked by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as centers of COVID-19 outbreaks. Public health experts have warned that the coronavirus will spread quickly inside jails and prisons due to the inherent difficulties of practicing social distancing inside such facilities.

A request to interview Denver Sheriff Department leadership about COVID-19 in the jails was denied.

Here’s how the status of the 55 inmates breaks down:

  • 38 inmates who have tested positive remain in custody at either the county or downtown jails.
  • 15 inmates have been released since testing positive.
  • Two inmates at the downtown jail have recovered since testing positive and remain in custody.

The sheriff department’s website still says that no inmate has tested positive for COVID-19, though department leaders announced March 30 that the first inmate had tested positive.

The Denver Sheriff Department is working with inmates to make sure they have a safe place to go before they are released, Swartz said in an email. The department is screening every inmate at intake by taking their temperature and asking whether they have respiratory symptoms, like shortness of breath or a cough.

Staff have been given personal protective equipment and masks are being given to inmates, Swartz said. Staff have access to hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. Inmates do not have access to hand sanitizer “due to the amount of alcohol that is required to kill the COVID-19 virus,” Swartz wrote, but do have access to soap and water to wash their hands.

The intake area is being cleaned four times a day and housing areas are being cleaned three times a day, after each meal. Jail staff, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys have worked to decrease the number of people at the Downtown Detention Center and data shows significant reductions have been made.

Attorneys for one Denver Downtown Detention Center inmate filed legal action last month alleging the sheriff department was not adequately protecting inmates and that people with symptoms were mixing with non-symptomatic people. Less than three weeks later, the inmate tested positive for COVID-19, his attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, said.

The city will not say how many Denver sheriff deputies have tested positive because it refuses to break down the numbers by public safety agency. Seventy-seven employees of the Public Safety Department have tested positive and 36 of those employees had recovered, according to the Joint Information Center. The Public Safety Department includes sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters, and 911 operators, among others.

But at least 20 deputies have self-reported positive diagnoses to their union, Mike Britton, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Denver Sheriff Department Lodge 27, said. Britton no longer works at the sheriff department, but remains in union leadership.

“Everybody is just freaking out,” he said. “You’re fighting something you can’t see.”

Deputies are having to reuse the personal protective gear because there isn’t enough, Britton said.

“They’re taking wipes and wiping them down so they can reuse them,” he said. “It’s a bleak situation over there.”

The union is hoping to buy 4,000 pieces of protective gear for deputies from a company in Virginia.

“This is far from over,” Britton said.

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