Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is defending his office’s COVID-19 testing and isolation procedures, saying he took action to prevent the spread of the virus earlier than any other sheriff in the country.
Dart pushed back on the recent criticism he’s received after The New York Times labeled the Cook County Jail as the “largest-known source of U.S. coronavirus infections” last week. He claimed there are more positive cases at the jail because his office began testing detainees before anyone else.
“I, for the life of me, can’t understand how people can be so reckless in the media, to be quite frank with you. I was so outraged,” Dart said Wednesday in a pretaped interview for “Chicago Tonight” via Zoom. “If you do not test, you will have zero people test positive. I was the first person in the country to start testing detainees, so of course I’m going to have numbers.”
So far, three detainees at the jail have died while more than 300 others have tested positive for COVID-19, though many of them have since recovered, according to Sheriff’s Office data. Dart’s office has also said 196 correctional officers have tested positive as of Tuesday evening, along with 38 other Cook County sheriff’s employees.
Dart said the media has “horribly, recklessly misrepresent(ed)” what has gone on at the jail in recent months, saying his office was forced to write its own playbook when it became clear no one else had a plan in place to handle a pandemic inside a jail.
His office began screening incoming detainees for flu-like symptoms back in late January, while also setting up quarantine and isolation wards for those who did test positive. Dart said jail staff have also given detainees soap, hand sanitizer and masks, while the Sheriff’s Office has added 500 beds of isolation housing in an “inmate bootcamp” located away from the main jail campus to help relieve pressure on its Cermak Hospital.
“We have really put a lot of time and energy and thoughtfulness into this,” he said, “and that’s why if you sense I’m beyond outraged, you’re catching on.”
The jail’s population, which Dart said sat around 12,000 when he became sheriff in 2007, now sits at a historic low of just over 4,300 detainees as judges and attorneys have worked through expedited bond hearings to get low-level offenders out of the jail.
But criticism of Dart’s office has also come from places other than the media.
The union representing jail staffers previously complained about a lack of access to personal protective gear and hand sanitizer, claims Dart has denied. And criminal justice advocates have blamed Dart and others for seemingly dragging their feet amid a push for the mass release of jail detainees, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
“This death was perfectly preventable,” one of those advocacy groups, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said in a statement this month following the first coronavirus-related death at the jail. “It could have been avoided if our County government would have headed our call, a call echoed by National Nurses United and SEIU Local 73, the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, former Cook County Jail warden Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and so many others.”
Dart said Wednesday he does not have the authority to put detainees in home confinement.
Last week, a federal judge rejected a motion calling for the release of those medically vulnerable detainees. But he did order Dart’s office to enact further social distancing and sanitary measures inside the jail. In a subsequent filing published Tuesday, Dart said his office is complying with that order.
“We believe we have things in control as well as (we) can,” he said Wednesday.
Dart said he’s essentially been living at the jail for weeks on end during the pandemic and noted that over the last week or so, the number of new cases there appears to be “leveling off.”
“So we’re looking at that,” he said, "as a good indicator that we are containing it.”