No Virus, But Few Tests for County Inmates

As COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars happen across the country, closer scrutiny at Travis County jail protocols

Photo by John Anderson

A group of local attorneys is urging the sheriff to test all inmates and employees at Travis County Jail for the coronavirus. "Without testing, tracing, and treatment, the Travis County jail system is going to get a serious outbreak in the next month," said George Lobb of the Austin Defense Coa­lition in a May 15 press conference.

No Travis County inmate has tested positive for the coronavirus thus far. But then, of the roughly 1,800 in jail, only 103 have received a test as of May 26. That's in part because of the protocol Sheriff Sally Hernandez and city leaders devised at the beginning of the pandemic. It called for testing only when an inmate showed symptoms of illness. (According to a Sheriff's Office PIO, at first sign of symptoms, inmates are quarantined; as of March 30, new inmates are automatically put in isolation and monitored for symptoms for the first 10-14 days.)

In addition to inmates, the Sheriff's Office has tested 76 employees. Of these, seven have tested positive. It's not just the numbers of those infected but where they work that concerns the ADC attorneys. "The new infections have occurred in the hub of the jail facility's operations, the central booking facility, where police officers bring all they arrest," said Chip Davis. He notes that central booking is visited by municipal employees, judicial staff, attorneys, and maintenance workers. Davis and his colleagues are demanding that the sheriff use part of the $65 million granted to the county by the CARES Act to get testing underway.

With these concerns in mind, City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan had scheduled an emergency meeting with three other CMs for May 20. But he called it off after speaking with Hernandez and Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, saying that a shortage of testing kits was behind the jail's testing protocol. "It's important to remember, when we're talking about testing resources we're not talking about money," Flannigan said. "It's literally the availability of the testing materials. The [attorneys'] concerns are valid. And in a perfect world we would be doing testing across the whole jail, including those without any symptoms whatsoever. But we just don't have those resources." He said that with rates of infection seemingly under control at the jail, the few testing kits available are being used to find infections in nursing homes and construction sites, where the virus has spiked in recent days.

The Sheriff's Office released a statement after the ADC's May 15 conference, explaining that its testing protocol is derived from recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Austin Public Health. "At this time, these authorities do not recommend universal testing or testing of asymptomatic individuals presenting without a fever and at least one other COVID-19 symptom," the statement reads. "TCSO will quickly adopt any change in assessment and treatment protocols at the urging of these medical professionals as warranted."

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Travis County jail system, Austin Defense Coalition, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Central Booking, George Lobb, Jimmy Flannigan, Mark Escott

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