COVID-19 outbreak at the Allegheny County Jail: 75 new cases in just 10 days. What does this say about the county’s testing practices?

By February 23, 2021 No Comments

Protesters demonstrated outside of the ASJ this past summer, to take issue with the county’s treatment of incarcerated indivcuals. (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor

UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after publishing this story, 13 incarcerated persons tested positive for COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail resulting in a total of 88 positive cases in less than two weeks.  The Pittsburgh Current obtained an internal email from Warden Orlando Harper to Allegheny County Jail Staff. 

An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail has resulted in 75 new cases in just 10 days. That number may grow because there are 54 test results outstanding, according to the ACJ website. 

On Feb 17, an internal email sent from Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper notified ACJ employees that 30 incarcerated persons and eight employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Previously, on Feb. 13, Harper reported that four employees and 33 incarcerated persons were infected.

That 10-day increase accounts for more than 25 percent of the jail’s total cases reported since March 2020.

As COVID-19 cases and new variants continue to crop up in the community, the ACJ also does not universally test incarcerated persons upon entry or exit of the facility, despite the success of similar programs at other facilities.

While the jail updates it’s COVID-19 dashboard periodically, these numbers may not accurately reflect the number of infections because they are based on selective and inconsistent testing practices according to dozens of incarcerated persons and ACJ employee testimony. 

What’s more, some Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members acknowledged that journalists are able to obtain information that Harper has not provided to the committee since the beginning of the pandemic.

The ACJ went on complete lockdown in response to the pandemic in March 2020. Since then, employees, activists, politicians and incarcerated individuals have questioned the jail administration’s handling of the pandemic. And while there were few cases at the jail in spring 2020, the situation has dramatically worsened since October. 

The lack of consistent testing makes it difficult to tell if those released from the ACJ have been tested before they return home.

Neither the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), the jail administration, or Allegheny Health Network (AHN) provided the rate of COVID-19 infection of the released population from the Allegheny County Jail. Nor did they provide data on how many community members may have been infected by a contact who either works at the ACJ or has been released from the facility. It’s unclear if that information had been tracked. 

The contract with AHN provides for the in-house management of jail medical services and the provision of specialized medical services, according to county Spokesperson Amie Downs. AHN did not return a request for comment. 

But nowhere in jail’s COVID policies, obtained by the Pittsburgh Current, does it state that AHN is responsible for setting the testing policies or practices. In the jail’s testing policies and procedures, there is no mention of AHN as a primary decision maker or provider. And, in the jail’s contract with AHN there is no mention of COVID-19, testing, or practices related to mitigating the virus. 

ACHD, ACJ and AHN also did not provide an infection rate of asymptomatic incarcerated persons or staff. 

Downs wrote in an email, “The facility is complying with the recommendations of the CDC, [Pennsylvania Department of Health], Pennsylvania -Department of Corrections] and Health Department as it relates to all of its policies and procedures relevant to COVID and doing so under the direction of its medical provider, AHN. 

The lack of information about the possible release of infected individuals from the ACJ is troubling because it indicates that formerly incarcerated people could be spreading the virus unknowingly in the community upon release 

In June, University of Chicago researchers discovered that nearly 16% of Illinois COVID-19 cases were linked to spread from the Cook County Jail. A study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that COVID-19 caseloads grew more quickly in counties with more people incarcerated. Nationally half a million cases were linked to mass incarceration in three months, according to the study. 

Why the jail doesn’t routinely test 

In May 2020, the Allegheny County’s Jail Oversight Board voted down a motion that would have directed the jail to test all inmates for COVID-19. In addition, Allegheny County Council public safety committee voted down a proposal in June 2020 that would have mandated COVID-19 testing for all staff and occupants at the Allegheny County Jail. At that time, the committee suggested it would be better to leave testing practices to the jail. 

According to the ACJ website, the facility tests “when appropriate.” The jail also tests incarcerated persons before they are transferred to another facility, as the state requires it. 

The jail website also reads, “Additional testing of inmates is done in consultation with the Allegheny County Health Department.”

‘Is there any reason why Allegheny County could not or should not conduct testing on all inmates and all staff?’

In the May 2020 Jail Oversight Board meeting, President Judge for the 5th Judicial District of Pennsylvania (Allegheny County), and chair of the board, Kim Berkeley Clark, asked Dr. Earl J. Brink, chief epidemiologist for ACHD, “Other County jails and State facilities throughout the country have conducted mass testing on inmates and staff. To your knowledge, is there any reason why Allegheny County could not or should not conduct testing on all inmates and all staff?”

To which Brink responded, “We consulted with the Pennsylvania Department of Health Liaison for Corrections about this approach, testing only symptomatic individuals…we have agreed that doing the partial testing does not inform both public health practices.  And one test is not going to….to be enough to ensure proper isolation quarantine. It only informs you at that moment; and repeat tests would, therefore, be required to continue this assurance.”

In spring 2020, Jodi Lynch, who was a nurse practitioner at ACJ at the time, testified in district court case United States v Brett Wells, that Deputy Warden for Healthcare Services Laura Williams overruled Lynch’s decision to test symptomatic incarcerated persons. Despite being in charge of healthcare decisions at the jail, Williams has no medical training and is trained as a mental health counselor.

During questioning, Lynch was asked if she thought it would be more helpful to have “more broad testing.” Lynch answered, “Yes. It would because, as you mentioned before, there are those who are asymptomatic and they could be spreading it throughout, which could, you know, further complicate things.” 

Lynch was asked if she was ever denied requests to test incarcerated persons at the ACJ. Lynch said yes. She testified that Williams decided that a person should not have been tested because of when they entered the ACJ. 

“They didn’t feel coming in at the end of February (2020) warranted her getting tested,” Lynch said.

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