Harris County to expand internal COVID-19 testing inside jails

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- After calling for widespread COVID-19 testing in Harris County jails last week, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced it is finally going to happen.

During a briefing Tuesday, she said testing will immediately start inside the jails, which will include inmates and employees.

Prior to this expansion, testing was done incrementally and focused on those who were symptomatic.

According to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who also spoke during the briefing, every year 90,000 children have parents in jail.

"In our environment, we're often forgotten because we're a jail system. But people forget that they're innocent until proven guilty," Gonzalez said. "These are human beings. They have families as well."

The congresswoman has expressed concern over the lack of testing being done in jails with the sheriff's office confirming that, as of Monday, 95 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

"Some have viewed the coronavirus as a slow tsunami. I view it, coming from hurricane country, as sporadic tornadoes," Lee said. "That means that it may drop down in some hot spot at any moment and take any number of lives. We know that tornado can hit the Harris County Jail."

Jail Medical Director Dr. Laxman Sunder said Tuesday testing is at 2% inside the jail, but the goal at this point is to get to 20%.

We know:

  • 50 inmates are in quarantine with symptoms of the virus and are waiting on test results
  • More than 2,100 inmates are in observational quarantine. That means they have no symptoms but may have been exposed to the virus.

According to the sheriff's office, all jail employees and inmates have been issued masks. Employees are required to wear the masks while on duty.

Within the sheriff's office, 126 employees have been diagnosed with the virus. Of those, 108 work in the jail.

Further, 327 deputies, detention officers and support staff are in quarantine for possible exposure. Six of those employees are hospitalized.

HCSO says it has taken measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including:

  • Early isolation of arrestees with COVID-19 symptoms entering the jail at intake
  • Masking all arrestees at the Joint Processing Center jail intake
  • 7-day "buffer isolation" of all new inmates prior to releasing to general population
  • Social distancing of inmates (as much as possible), detention staff, and medical staff, even in break rooms
  • Increased availability of soap, water, and hand sanitizer

Right now, there are 425 test kits for inmates on hand and are only used for those with symptoms.

"I wanted to hold up the letter that I am sending to the county, the Harris County Jail, and as well to the sheriff, asking for immediate implementation of massive testing in the jail," Lee said last week.

Currently, sheriff's office staff are getting tested at public sites.

Lee said United Memorial Medical Center has been conducting 1,000 tests a day, and she urges the public to continue to visit those test sites.

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