The number of Cook County Jail detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19 nearly tripled between Wednesday morning and evening, according to the sheriff’s office, which has now tested 50 individuals who have begun exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, 17 detainees at the jail had tested positive for the new coronavirus, along with four correctional staff employees and one sheriff’s officer. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office says it is still awaiting the results of 31 other detainees who have so far been tested.
Test results for just two detainees have come back negative, officials said.
“Cermak staff are closely monitoring the detainees on the living units where these individuals were housed, and will test any detainees who are symptomatic,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement Wednesday evening.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office also said the entire jail compound is undergoing “regular, comprehensive cleaning and disinfecting” and that detainees have access to soap and water and are being educated on how to spot and report symptoms of the virus.
Between Friday and Wednesday, the jail population decreased by 185 detainees, according to sheriff’s office data, from nearly 5,500 down to 5,306.
Already, the sheriff’s office has suspended detainee visits at the jail and created housing tiers for new inmates booked at the jail. It also added 500 beds of isolation housing in an “inmate bootcamp” located away from the main jail campus to help relieve pressure on Cermak Hospital, according to the sheriff’s office.
Cook County Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. on Monday ordered expedited bond hearings in an effort to hear “the maximum number of requests in the shortest period of time.” That process began Tuesday.
These hearings will be held for certain types of detainees, including those with an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age or health issues; pregnant women; and those charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or felonies, among others.
On Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a group of suburban mayors penned a letter to Martin, urging that these expedited bond hearings be “exercised with care.”
Specifically, the mayors want to know if detainees who are released will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before being released into the community and whether any detainees could end up homeless because they have no place to stay outside the jail.
“As mayors and organizations that represent mayors in Cook County, we believe these key questions must be addressed when considering the process for release for anyone who may be vulnerable or worse already sick,” the letter states. “We have resources to support these individuals, but we cannot be on the sidelines. Public health considerations post-release are also relevant in this time of crisis, and must inform the individualized release determinations.”
Lightfoot later told reporters she wants to see a “safety net” put into place for those who are released so they aren’t “just dumped on the street” and end up in the hospital.
But advocacy groups have said a much more drastic reduction is necessary to prevent a full outbreak within the jail. On Wednesday, the Chicago Community Bond Fund said it’s working with other groups to pay off $120,000 in bond payments to get 20 detainees out of the jail.
“There is no amount of money from philanthropic efforts from individuals or community groups that will fix this disastrous situation,” Sharlyn Grace, executive director of Chicago Community Bond Fund, said in a statement. “We call on Cook County officials to do their jobs and protect the lives of people living in Cook County by releasing people from Cook County Jail.”