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Several criminal justice advocates have called for mass testing of inmates and staffers at the Eau Claire County Jail, after six people in custody have tested positive for COVID-19 during a mandatory 14-day quarantine before they enter the jail's general population.

Several Chippewa Valley criminal justice advocates are calling for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department to test every inmate and staffer in the county jail, after a June announcement that five people in the jail had tested positive for COVID-19.

But health officials contend that one-time mass testing wouldn’t be useful, saying they’ll take the lead of the state.

A few other counties in Wisconsin have announced they’ll test everyone inside their jails after discovering cases — including Trempealeau County, which did mass testing in its jail after one inmate tested positive for the coronavirus. Eau Claire County hasn’t done the same.

Susan Wolfgram, UW-Stout emeritus professor and criminal justice advocate, questioned why Eau Claire County didn’t follow suit after the first five cases of the virus were found in people booked into the jail.

“The ultimate protection is getting a baseline, testing everyone,” Wolfgram said.

Wolfgram, Eau Claire County Supervisor Kimberley Cronk of District 28 and David Carlson, Rights For All regional organizer with ACLU of Wisconsin, in June called for the Health Department to order mass testing in the jail.

The department’s director and county’s chief health officer, Lieske Giese, has said the Health Department isn’t doing mass testing in the county jail right now, and will follow the state’s lead — adding that since the jail’s existing six cases were found during a mandatory 14-day quarantine, mass testing wouldn’t provide useful data.

“Where we’ve had someone come into the jail that ended up testing positive, all the appropriate practices were in place to make sure there were no close contacts to anyone ... which meant spread didn’t happen,” Giese said in July. “ … Testing is really just a point-in-time (measure). It doesn’t prevent disease from happening to the people that have it.”

Wolfgram, Carlson and Cronk described the situation as an “impasse,” in a June 26 letter to Giese, Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer, jail and health department officials and several county board supervisors.

The letter said: “We do not need to wait any longer for the State to add specific recommendations for COVID testing in county jails, not when Public Health directors have the authority to make their own common-sense protective decisions of their most vulnerable.”

All parties agree on one thing: The county jail is following CDC recommendations. The jail has cut the number of people in custody nearly in half and has increased inmates’ access to cleaning supplies, among other safety measures.

But the three advocates challenged the Health Department on how useful mass testing would be.

Wolfgram and Cronk say it would identify inmates and staffers who have the virus but are asymptomatic, and could stem a possible outbreak.

“They are doing everything the CDC recommends they do, but they’re not testing everyone, and they can,” Wolfgram said.

“Right now, doing one-time testing in the jail of inmates and staff really doesn’t tell us much,” Giese said. “Really, if we’re doing asymptomatic testing, we have to be regularly looking at testing.”

The proposal brings up questions about testing capacity, as the county slowly ramps up how many coronavirus tests it sends to labs each day.

Test capacity is a “considerable issue we’re exploring across the state,” and the county is working through “the balance between having the right people tested at the right time with the right resources,” Giese said in July.

Some counties pursue more testing

A few Wisconsin counties have forged ahead, testing en masse earlier this spring.

Wisconsin jails have routinely found new cases of the virus via mass testing — and at least in one case, a significant portion of inmates’ tests came back positive.

When the Dane County Sheriff’s Office tested everyone in its agency, it found six new cases of the virus among jail inmates, the Wisconsin State Journal reported in April.

In Kenosha County, 13 jail staffers tested positive by April. Afterward, the National Guard conducted mass testing in the Kenosha County Detention Center and the pretrial jail, the Kenosha News reported, and found almost 20% of the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

The Trempealeau County Jail tested all its inmates and staffers in May after someone who was booked into the jail tested positive. That person wasn’t in contact with the jail’s general population, the Trempealeau County Health Department said.

This spring, Wolfgram and other advocates tried to bring the National Guard to Eau Claire County to test in the jail, but “that didn’t go anywhere,” she said.

Any inmate or staffer at the county jail is tested if they show symptoms, Giese said: “That has been the longstanding state protocol.”

The state Department of Corrections said it would test all prisoners and staff for COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s 36 adult prisons, the Associated Press reported in June.

One new case at the jail

As of Friday, six inmates at the Eau Claire County Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus — one new case since mid-June. All six cases were found when people undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine before entering the jail showed symptoms of the virus.

The Health Department declined to say Friday if any jail employees had tested positive, citing medical privacy rules.

Health Department officials have repeatedly said the virus isn’t spreading within the jail’s general population, pointing to the mandatory 14-day quarantine. During that period, inmates stay in a single solid-walled cell with a solid door, for roughly 24 hours a day unless they’re showering, attending court appearances or meeting with attorneys, Lt. Dave Riewestahl of the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office’s security services division told the Leader-Telegram in June.

The idea is that if someone who’s booked into the jail has contracted the virus, they’ll start having symptoms within the two to 14 days the CDC says the virus takes to show itself.

But given the percentage of asymptomatic carriers — the CDC estimated in May that a third of people with COVID-19 infections didn’t show any symptoms — it’s possible someone who’s infected could enter the jail even while they have the virus, Wolfgram contends.

“On its face that makes absolutely no sense, when we know how many people are asymptomatic and how many people are traveling in and out having contact with each other,” Wolfgram said.

County officials have said they’re giving jail staffers protective equipment to wear.

Jail employees are “the group with the highest risk of bringing disease into the jail,” Giese said in July.

The jail provides masks, gloves and gowns to its staffers, and the level of PPE worn varies on the task they’re working on, Riewestahl said.

Some other people do enter and exit the jail. Attorneys from the public defender’s office have some face-to-face visits with inmates. The majority of other attorneys have “semi-contact visits,” Riewestahl said, where the risk of directly transmitting the virus is virtually cut down to zero by using a telephone to communicate through a glass window. Mental health staff and social workers also meet with inmates via video, he said.

A community member donated nearly 200 cloth masks for the jail’s incarcerated people to wear, “enough for every inmate if they wanted them,” Riewestahl said. Inmates are allowed to keep the masks, and can wash them when their jail block does laundry.

Wolfgram said she believes the possibility of quarantine is dissuading some inmates with mild symptoms from coming forward.

“Many of them do not want to report that they have symptoms, especially people with mental health issues,” Wolfgram said. “They do not report because they don’t want to go into solitary quarantine.”

The sheriff’s office is still reducing the number of people kept inside the jail. It reduced the number of inmates from 281 to 143 between March 1 and April 8, said Dan Bresina, Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office captain of security services, in April. That reduction has continued, with 144 people in custody earlier this week, Riewestahl said Friday.

‘Disheartening’

Advocates say they want a similar level of concern about the virus’ spread in jails as nursing homes and congregate living sites.

The state Department of Health Services said this spring it would test every nursing home resident and staffer in the state by the end of May, aiming to identify asymptomatic infections early.

People and employees in group living situations need to be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms, the DHS said, saying that “in congregate living settings like nursing homes where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, moving beyond only symptom-based screening is unlikely to detect all cases.”

“I’m not understanding how it’s any different, especially with (the jail) being such a fluid place, people coming and going,” Cronk said. “Why that would be treated any differently, I’m not exactly understanding.”

Data also suggest a novel coronavirus outbreak in the Eau Claire County Jail would be more dangerous than an outbreak at a local business or work site — due to worse outcomes of the coronavirus for people of color.

Black people are overrepresented in the county’s coronavirus cases — and they’re about 20 times as overrepresented in the jail’s population. As of this week, the jail had 173 inmates, according to a county jail population tracker. Of those inmates, 21% were Black.

“I have never seen that percentage hit below 16%,” Carlson said.

Black people in Eau Claire County make up just 1% of the county’s total population, according to a 2019 census estimate.

Other data indicates people in jail tend to be at higher risk.

Incarcerated people have a higher prevalence of underlying conditions — 44%, compared to 31% in the general population — including high blood pressure, tuberculosis, asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to an April statement from three Wisconsin epidemiology professors.

County health officials didn’t rule out the possibility of mass testing, but have emphasized the Health Department will wait for direction from the state: Giese said at a July press conference that the state is developing “a broader testing strategy.”

“There may be value, as community spread starts happening at a higher level, to do some asymptomatic testing in some facilities,” she said. “It’s something we’re exploring as a state, and we hope to have the capacity as we move forward to be exploring that as an option.”

In interviews, Cronk and Carlson called for consistent, specific updates about the jail’s plan to deal with the virus. Cronk called the situation “disheartening and frustrating.”

“Jails are full of family members and loved ones and mothers and fathers and friends, so we have to have that same level of communication and updates that occur,” she said. “I think, during this time, it’s beneficial to overcommunicate.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the Leader-Telegram's education and health reporter. She's worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter at @sarahaseifert.