14 Salt Lake County Jail inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, sheriff confirms

14 Salt Lake County Jail inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, sheriff confirms

(Kristin Murphy, KSL, File)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A total of 14 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus while in the Salt Lake County Jail, the sheriff’s office said Wednesday.

Yet three more contracted the virus after being exposed to it inside the jail’s walls, county health officials have determined. None have died.

Just one of the inmates confirmed to have the virus remains in isolation, a figure Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera called “a reflection on the proactive measures we have taken to mitigate the spread.”

The numbers released Wednesday were the first in three weeks to shed light on the spread of the virus at the jail — the only Utah correctional facility to report cases so far.

Asked why the jail had clammed up, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera told the Deseret News earlier Wednesday that jail officials had decided to stop sharing that information because “it was being used against us” in court as civil rights groups fight for the release of more inmates.

“That was at the advice of legal counsel,” Rivera said. “Legal counsel has said, ‘Limit what you are releasing on the jail.’”

But Wednesday, Rivera said jail officials decided to report the latest COVID-19 case tally to clear up “inaccurate information.” She also argued against criticism that the county hasn’t been transparent. She pointed to the county jail’s online dashboard. The site details the number of inmates, plus traits like age, sex and ethnicity, but gives no information on the virus.

“We are the only sheriff’s office in the state that is very, very transparent,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure the public isn’t getting the wrong information, so we wanted to correct that.”

Aside from the sole inmate now in isolation, her office said 13 others have recovered. Still 54 others in the jail who showed mild symptoms or came into contact with someone who had the virus were being held in single cells and were being evaluated.

The office declined to give ages or genders of those who fell sick, citing the pending court case.

The 14 who tested positive while jailed amounts to a 1% rate of infection in the jail, which held 1,409 as of Wednesday, Rivera noted.

But it does not capture the three who fell sick after their release from the jail’s two locations.

Based on the timing of their symptoms and those with whom they recently came in contact, an additional three people with the virus were likely exposed at the jail, said Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nick Rupp.

He said the department does not track how many inmates are tested.

Rivera reported earlier this month that seven employees had the virus but did not provide an update Wednesday. She said many who tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered and returned to work and she expressed sympathy for employees still battling the illness.

Judges in Salt Lake County have ordered the release of more than 200 low-level offenders from the jail, a group deemed low-risk by defense attorneys and prosecutors. But the ACLU of Utah and the state chapter of the Disability Law Center say that’s not enough.

Those groups have filed a petition seeking the release of more inmates, including those older or with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill if infected.

The Utah State Prison also took steps toward greater transparency Wednesday, detailing on its website that 13 inmates have tested negative and 6 more are awaiting results. The prison has tested not just those who show symptoms or may have been exposed, but also any inmates set to be transported to a hospital for any other condition, said spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted.

While none in the prison’s Draper or Gunnison facilities are confirmed to have the virus, 10 in a Salt Lake City halfway house have tested positive.

The prison said April 8 it would not accept offenders most recently held in the Salt Lake County Jail.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office is now scrutinizing that move at the request of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who represents the jail.

“I expect everybody to follow the law, and there are certain statutory obligations,” Gill said. “When somebody is sentenced to more than 364 days in our system, the jurisdiction transfers.”

Defense attorneys have other concerns.

“If it increases density in jail, that’s probably not so good for the spread of the coronavirus,” said Richard Mauro, the executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association. His office represents those who can’t afford an attorney.

Salt Lake inmates rejected by the prison will likely still get credit for the time they serve in the jail, Mauro said earlier this month. But they may not have access to more robust services in the prison like sex offender treatment that could make them eligible for parole earlier.

“If that’s being delayed, that’s problematic,” he said.

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