Coronavirus slams jails: 82 inmates test positive in Weber County, another 59 in Washington County

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC via AP)

Eighty-two people incarcerated at the Weber County jail have tested positive for the coronavirus, jail officials said Wednesday.

It’s the largest outbreak yet in a Utah jail facility. Washington County jail officials on Wednesday also reported a large spread of COVID-19 cases in their jail, with 59 inmates testing positive so far — nearly 20% of the jail population.

Weber County jail officials believe the virus first entered the jail after a federal inmate from Nevada was transferred to Weber County, but noted that there has been community spread in the county and its likely that not all of their cases originated from that inmate.

Lt. Josh Marigoni said Tuesday that the federal inmate had a cough, but he reported to medical officials that it was a chronic cough due to a medical condition. He was placed in a receiving unit, not in an isolation or quarantine unit. Four days later, the inmate asked to be seen by medical professionals because his cough had worsened.

He was tested for COVID-19 then and separated from the other inmates. Marigoni said Wednesday that they have tested 125 inmates so far, and mass testing will continue. He said they will be working with the courts over the coming days to review whether inmates who are more at risk to get the virus can be released early or serve their sentences in another way.

In Washington County, Chief Deputy Jake Schultz said Wednesday that officials aren’t quite sure how COVID-19 entered their facility, but said their first cases came from the jail’s intake unit. Before jailers realized those inmates had the virus, they had already been moved to different housing units.

“It went like a domino effect,” he said.

Officials at both facilities say they’ve been taking precautions to keep the virus out since March, giving inmates extra soap and face masks. They’ve also worked to reduce their jail population.

“Our main goal then was keeping it out,” Shultz said. “Once it got in, we transitioned into our primary initiative now, which is to keep it from spreading and contain it.”

Schultz said only about a dozen or so of the inmates have shown symptoms of COVID-19, and one inmate was briefly hospitalized with respiratory issues.

Fourteen of the inmates who tested positive at the Washington County jail have been sentenced to the Utah State Prison, but are incarcerated in Washington County as part of a program to help ease overcrowding.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has expressed concern that prison officials aren’t doing enough to ensure that those inmates being housed in county jails are being kept safe and that proper precautions are being taken to stop the coronavirus from entering jail walls.

Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted said Wednesday that beyond contracting with individual facilities and putting standards in place, prison officials don’t provide oversight to the county jails they send inmates to. She said she anticipates that those inmates in Washington County will remain there, and there are no plans to move them to a different facility.

These counties are not the only jail experiencing a coronavirus outbreak in Utah. There has also been cases reported at the Salt Lake County jail and a halfway house in Salt Lake City.

The Utah State Prison has had three confirmed cases at its Draper facility.