But the county didn’t start testing everyone upon entry until Nov. 6, making it possible for people with asymptomatic infections, including deputies, to bring the virus inside.
Jails pose a unique challenge because so many people come and go daily.
Statewide, jail outbreaks have accounted for more than 4,500 COVID cases since the pandemic began, according to Colorado Department of Public Health data, making them among the largest hotspots in Colorado.
And no jail had a larger outbreak than El Paso; the outbreak that began in late October has now stretched into its sixth month, with 1,272 cases reported as of the first week of April.
“We were doing everything we could,” Reed said. “If anyone answered in the positive for any COVID questions, they were isolated, but again, you can only base that on the information you’re given.”
‘You are considered a facility with a confirmed outbreak’
Despite the effort to put in mitigation systems — like the new doors — by late fall, the jail was struggling to contain the virus.
Emails between the public health department and sheriff’s department show officials trying to get a handle on even more protective measures in the face of the wildfire-like spread of the virus inside.
“At this point, you are a facility with a confirmed outbreak,” Klaber, an epidemiologist with El Paso County Public Health wrote to Brad Shannon, detentions bureau chief at the sheriff’s office on Oct. 28. “May I please have a line list for the individuals in your facility who are confirmed or suspect for having COVID-19. You will want to include individuals who were ill two weeks prior to your confirmed case.”
But, as the infections spread, the jail struggled to respond, emails show.
The jail staff was looking at other ways to potentially make the building safer for those on the inside, including the decision to spend $113,000, also from the federal CARES grant, on ventilation improvements.
Eventually, county officials enlisted the National Guard to come in and do mass testing.
The fight to get masks
Inside the jail, inmates grew increasingly angry that they weren’t allowed masks.
Cecil Haynes, 35, who served three months at the end of last year and contracted COVID-19 inside, said inmates were glued to news coverage about the outbreak and grew increasingly impatient at the officials’ response to reporters.
Haynes said it didn’t reflect what was happening inside.
“Everyone was in there coughing on each other. I’m laying on my bunk and I’m literally at arm’s length to touch the next person,” Haynes said. “I sent hundreds of messages … I had to get a T-shirt and cut off the sleeve and wear that as a face mask so I could protect myself. But that didn’t work, by the time I decided to do that, I’d already contracted it.”
One deputy told inmates that he was going to let the virus “run its course” through the population because there were so many people infected, according to court filings.
At that time, county officials said, public health officials were still not recommending inmates wear masks in their housing units.
This contradicted a message El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder posted on Facebook last summer, shortly after Gov. Jared Polis’ mask mandate was issued.
“I just encourage people, wear a mask,” he said. “Let’s try to make this as easy as we can on the community and not try to make it more difficult on individuals.”
Officials said, at the time, they had a shortage of PPE and that many masks had metal inside of them and so they considered them contraband.
In July, officials furnished masks to inmates when coming to and from the court, but once inside, they were required to discard them.
Inmates were even punished for fashioning their own masks for protection, according to an ACLU lawsuit against the sheriff for how he handled COVID-19 prevention measures.
“The jail environment cannot be compared to a restaurant environment, for example … The guidance was from public health that masks were not really required,” Reed said. “So that’s the guidance we required.”
Haynes describes a “riot” inside the jail the second week of November, the same week more than 900 people tested positive. He said inmates refused to eat, refused to lock down and refused to follow directions.
“They’re sitting there, lying to the general public, our family members, everyone,” he said. “And finally, they sent in a bunch of deputies, the sergeants, and they said, ‘well, what would it take to get you to stop this?’ And we asked for masks and the very next day they brought us masks.”