Minnesota's biggest jail tries to ward off COVID-19

By Friday afternoon, a total of six inmates at the Hennepin County Jail had tested positive for COVID-19. None are currently in custody.

By Friday afternoon, a total of six inmates at the Hennepin County Jail had tested positive for COVID-19. None are currently in custody. David Joles, Star Tribune

It was “inevitable,” Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said in a statement last week, that some of the inmates in Hennepin County jail were going to test positive for coronavirus.

Like people stuck on cruise ships or in nursing homes, the incarcerated are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease. Since the end of March, as Minnesota’s state prisons were seeing their first confirmed cases, correctional facilities across the state have been on high alert. Visitation had already been cut off weeks beforehand.

“We serve a population that is larger than the combined population of the next three largest counties,” Hutchinson said, of Hennepin's inmate count. “We made it a priority to work with our medical experts to identify a plan to prevent the spread of the virus in our jail.”

Everybody gets screened when they enter the facility, and those exhibiting symptoms of the virus are tested. By Thursday afternoon, the jail reported its first five inmates—and first staff member—to test positive for COVID-19. Medical Director Dr. Rachel Silva says these were likely due to the spread of the virus out in the community, not within the jail.

That could always change. Besides those cases, 117 people have been tested, there are three results that are still pending, another 12 people have been “exposed” to the virus, and 49 more have experienced symptoms of some kind. A spokesperson with the jail says those could mean anything down to a “stomachache.”

The next day, a sixth person tested positive, and the jail reported 47 people were “medically isolated” due to “observed or self-reported symptoms.” Twenty-two were in quarantine, meaning they’d been in contact with a person who’d tested positive. A total of 123 people had been tested, with 117 of them determined to be coronavirus-free. Another seven were pending results.

The six people who have tested positive so far are no longer in custody, but that has nothing to do with their health, the spokesperson says. Those decisions are made “irrespective of whether they’ve tested positive.If the court releases them, they are released."

As a precautionary move, last month, the jail began releasing people accused of “less serious crimes” on bail in order to keep numbers down and lower the risk of disease. The population is now about 45 percent lower than it was at the beginning of March.

Those who test positive and have to remain in jail will be held in “isolation areas” designed to reduce the spread of the virus to staff and other detainees. If things worsen to the point they need hospitalization, staff will move them and continue to guard them there.

Meanwhile, at the prison level, some 212 patients have been tested for COVID-19, 66 of them with positive results. All of those cases come from two outbreaks—one in Willow Lake, where 40 inmates tested positive, and another at Moose Lake, with 26 confirmed cases.

Another 38 inmates (37 at Moose Lake, and seven at Willow Lake) are “presumed” positive, and 30 inmates at Moose Lake are "no longer requiring isolation," meaning they've either fully recovered or are no longer considered a threat to spread the virus.