Coronavirus

As COVID Cases Surge Statewide, Testing Remains Sparse In Dallas County Jail

Despite an omicron-driven surge in cases countywide, testing remains extremely low inside Dallas County Jail.
Despite an omicron-driven surge in cases countywide, testing remains extremely low inside Dallas County Jail. Pixabay
When Timothy Gutierrez felt a runny nose and sinus congestion coming on about a week ago, he was sure it was COVID-19.

Gutierrez, who has been held in Dallas County Jail since mid-November on an alleged probation violation stemming from a previous drug-related charge, noticed many of the inmates coughing and complaining of flu-like symptoms from the time he was booked.

When he started feeling sick last Tuesday, Gutierrez, who has had a first dose of the vaccine but was jailed before he could get a booster, was sure it was COVID-19. He reported his symptoms to jailers and was allowed to visit the jail’s medical wing.

There, he says, Parkland Health and Hospital Systems nurses took his vitals, heard his complaints about his symptoms, then informed him that because he did not have a temperature at the time he was in the medical wing, they would not test him for the virus.

Parkland Health officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Gutierrez is not the only Dallas County Jail inmate denied a coronavirus test by Parkland, even as the omicron variant has pushed case numbers to record levels nationwide in recent weeks. Despite what jailers and other inmates describe as widespread COVID-19 symptoms, only 54 inmates, about 1% of the inmate population, have ‘active’ tests, according to internal county data.

According to an official from the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, active tests mean the test has returned a confirmed positive result or that the result is pending. According to internal county data, there are 12 inmates with confirmed positive tests and 42 with pending test results — 54 active tests in total.

“Omicron is highly transmittable, and we’re really concerned about it in places like the county jail, and we need to do as much as we can do to keep people and ourselves safe." - Judge Clay Jenkins

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Last week, a city meeting on the jail’s population and state of COVID-19 within the jail was canceled, according to a Dallas County commissioner. The commissioner did not say why the meeting was canceled.

A few weeks after Gutierrez's arrival, guards emptied out the entire "pod" across the hall from him (there are currently about 60 inmates per pod, according to Dallas County jailers). “They were part of the kitchen staff, and now they’re in quarantine,” Gutierrez said. “Now we don’t know where they are." 

In the internal county data form from Dec. 20, meanwhile, the "number of inmates quarantined" was left blank. The Dallas County Sheriff's Office official said they would confirm the figure, but would not be able to do so in time for publication.

During previous coronavirus surges, Texas jails and prisons emerged as the U.S.’ leading coronavirus hotspots. Within a few months of the pandemic hitting the U.S. in April 2020, the ACLU of Texas sued Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown over the lack of protections for inmates under her watch in Dallas County Jail.

With a new variant driving yet another surge statewide, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins acknowledged the inherent challenge in keeping inmates and jail staff safe from the virus.

“Omicron is highly transmittable, and we’re really concerned about it in places like the county jail, and we need to do as much as we can do to keep people and ourselves safe,” Jenkins said. “But we can’t force you to get vaccinated because you’re in jail, we can’t make you get a booster because you’re in jail.” 
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Michael Murney is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney