At the Sedgwick County jail, COVID cases were on the rise in August. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon))
Positive COVID-19 case numbers are on the rise again at the Sedgwick County jail. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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In Sedgwick County, COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing — in July, new daily cases averaged about 62 per day. By mid-August, that number more than doubled to nearly 140. 

That’s beginning to impact the Sedgwick County Detention Facility. After months of nearly no cases, the number of positive cases shot up after just two weeks in August. The jail’s test processing lab reflected 21 positives as of Aug. 11, while internal sheriff’s department data indicated 27 positive cases as of Aug. 18.

“We’re seeing COVID ramping up in the community, and jails are a reflection of the community,” said jail administrator Col. Jared Schechter. “Unfortunately it’s not surprising that we’re seeing some rises in our population.”

Along with the spike in cases came the jail’s first in-custody death in 2021. After being booked into the county jail July 16, Lester Jacobs, 60, died Aug. 5 after testing positive for COVID-19. The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office said Jacobs had a history of a chronic medical issue. No autopsy report has been released. 

Yet as COVID-19 ramps up again, the Sedgwick County jail is not implementing safety measures already in use by the four other largest counties in Kansas. These include universal testing of incarcerated people or staff, as well as a strict isolation period for those entering jail. This comes after the jail experienced a massive outbreak of COVID-19 with nearly 750 positive cases last August and as it overflows maximum capacity, according to Schechter.

“The real rub here is, someone got COVID in the jail and died. So, how did that happen?” said Daniel Warren, the medical director at the Wichita Comprehensive Treatment Center, a local methadone clinic. Warren said he’s concerned about the jail’s COVID-19 protocols after hearing from clients.

“Something is not working with the screening process, something is not working with that initial quarantine process,” Warren added.

Schechter said recent steps to prevent another outbreak include reimplementing an intensive jail cleaning every six weeks. Additionally, masks are mandated within the jail, and incarcerated people are provided with extra soap. And this month the sheriff’s office began offering $10 in commissary items to incarcerated people for receiving both vaccine shots.

Despite calls, Sedgwick County does not test all incarcerated people

After the jail’s COVID-19 outbreak last year, the ACLU of Kansas called on two top Sedgwick County officials — Sheriff Jeff Easter and District Attorney Marc Bennett — to implement a “robust testing protocol” for jail residents and staff. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends “testing all newly incarcerated/detained persons before they join the rest of the population.”

Yet universal testing is not part of Sedgwick County jail’s COVID-19 screening process for incarcerated people. Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office employees do not undergo regular testing, either. 

Instead, guidelines for the facility call for testing people housed in the jail if they are symptomatic or have close contact with a person who tested positive, Sara Hallacy, the health services administrator for Sedgwick County jail, wrote in an email. Additionally, any incarcerated person can request a test.

In June 2021, 76 COVID-19 tests were administered to incarcerated people in the Sedgwick County jail, according to a jail official, while the average daily population was 1,301.

Schechter said they tried testing everyone incarcerated in the jail for two weeks about one year ago. But the jail did not have enough space to separate all positive and negative cases while also separating different security classifications.

A survey of the detention centers in the four other most populous counties in Kansas by The Wichita Beacon found all tested either the entire incarcerated population or everyone working in the jail. Douglas County tests those incarcerated on their second day in jail, Johnson County on their fifth day and Wyandotte County on their seventh day. Shawnee County does not test all incarcerated people but all staff working in the jail every two weeks.

Quarantine versus isolation

Though people in Sedgwick County jail are not all tested, they do all undergo an initial 10-day quarantine in two special housing units, Schechter said. But quarantine doesn’t necessarily mean isolation, he added. 

“They are still allowed dayroom access inside that housing unit, visitation, being able to mingle amongst the other inmates and spend time together,” Schechter said. “As long as there’s no concerns about possibly being symptomatic or presumed positive.”

Each housing unit has around 50 to 60 beds.  

This 10-day quarantine offers substantially more interaction than the 10-day quarantines in other Kansas counties. In Douglas, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties, incarcerated people are in their own cell for most of the day to avoid interacting with others. In Johnson County, people housed in the jail are confined to a group of 12 during the initial quarantine period.

Warren said Sedgwick County’s 10-day quarantine period is helpful, but he is concerned about contact incarcerated people have with each other during that time.  

“Do they make sure that inmates are literally not exposed to anybody else during that period of time?” Warren said. “It’s not really a quarantine if people are cycling in and out every day.” 

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.