Virus cases rise sharply in metro Phoenix county jails

The number of Maricopa County jail inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus has increased sharply over the last five days, leading officials to consider mass testing at county correctional facilities.

Officials on Monday evening reported that 203 of the county’s approximately 4,500 inmates have tested positive, compared to 30 cases as of Thursday. Nineteen Maricopa County detention officers also have tested positive.

MORE: Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

The number of cases in Maricopa County’s jails is approaching the total in state prisons, where 237 of Arizona’s 40,000 prisoners have tested positive.

The increase in Maricopa County jails came as more inmates were tested and the county conducts contact tracing inside detention facilities. Some inmates who previously tested negative have since been confirmed to have contracted the virus. Inmates who tested positive are isolated and being treated.

Fields Moseley, a spokesman for the county agency that specializes in providing health care to inmates, said mass testing is one of several options being considered by officials as they manage the risks of COVID-19 behind bars.

Moseley said mass testing would be undertaken only if health officials conclude it’s needed.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union called for all inmates in Maricopa County jails to be tested, saying the virus can spread quickly once an outbreak occurs in a detention facility. Moseley said the county’s consideration of large scale testing isn’t a response to the ACLU.

There have been positive tests among inmates at four of the county’s five jails, though the county won’t reveal which jails have had an outbreak.

Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office, which operates the county’s jails, said in a statement Tuesday that it will continue to work with the county’s correctional health operation on testing inmates. The sheriff’s office emphasized that a jail pod will be put under quarantine and all inmates will be tested if one inmate tests positive for the virus.

RELATED: How Maricopa County jails are handling the COVID-19 spread

Penzone’s office has said it has undertaken a series of preventative steps, such as screening all suspects during booking, suspending visitation, providing face masks to inmates and employees and limiting the movement of inmates.

The sheriff’s office is working to identify staff members who may have had contact with inmates who contracted the virus.

In anticipation of outbreaks within its jails, the county’s jail population has been reduced 37% from 7,100 in December to more than 4,400 on Tuesday.

The reductions were made through a series of measures, such as the courts temporarily suspending the sentences of inmates who were allowed to leave jail to go to work and police agencies citing and releasing nonviolent suspects rather than taking them into custody.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.

For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

MAP: Arizona Coronavirus cases by zip code



Associated Press reporter Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed.

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