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Jail inmates and staff being tested in San Juan County, N.M.

Eight test positive at adult detention facility
San Juan County detention centers are working to test all staff members and detainees for COVID-19.

FARMINGTON – San Juan County announced it will keep testing all staff and detainees at the county-run facilities for the novel coronavirus, with the support of the New Mexico Department of Health.

All staff and detainees at the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Center were tested in early May. The results were all negative for COVID-19, according to the county.

Seven detainees and one part-time contract medical staffer tested positive at the adult detention center as of Wednesday morning. The detainees who tested positive have been quarantined and are being monitored, according to the county. The county contracts its facility medical units with Wellpath.

Devin Neeley, spokesman for the county, said the facility and contract medical staff are prohibited from releasing HIPAA- (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) protected information on people in the detention center, even to family members.

“We continue to monitor the general population and are still adhering to strict protocols to make sure that the detainee population is safe, as well as detention staff,” Neeley said in an email Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, there were 271 people housed in the adult detention facility.

Testing is still underway at the San Juan County Alternative Sentencing.

In addition to testing, the county said it has implemented additional health and safety precautions. Throughout its three facilities, staff, contractors and detainees are screened for fevers, and staff members’ temperatures are checked before each shift.

When new people enter either the Juvenile Detention Center or the Adult Detention Center, they are monitored for 14 days for any symptoms related to COVID-19.

The county-run facilities had stopped in-person visits and switched to video conferences before the COVID-19 pandemic began. While those have continued, the county said detainees at the Juvenile Services Facility were allowed extra weekly calls to stay in touch with family members during this time.

While prison and jails across the country have become breeding grounds for COVID-19 with some places spreading the virus at high rates, New Mexico seems to have avoided that fate so far.

As of Monday, five staff members and 21 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in the 11 state-run facilities, according to the New Mexico Corrections Department website. All 21 of the inmates who tested positive for the virus were from the Otero County Prison Facility in southern New Mexico.

During a live-streamed news conference last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said prisons and detention facilities are a “high-risk environment.” She added the low positive test rate in facilities throughout the state might not hold.

But the ACLU of New Mexico has been critical of the lack of at-risk inmates being released who pose a low risk to the community and filed an unsuccessful petition asking Lujan Grisham to release more individuals. The state released 35 people with an executive order from the governor’s office in April.

San Juan County detention facilities are not operated by the state.

In mid-March with concerns around the virus growing, La Plata County Jail began releasing at-risk inmates who pose a low risk to the community. In the span of a week, the population of the jail shrank from 201 to 176 people.

The Supreme Court of Colorado has also suspended all jury trials in Colorado to avoid large gatherings of people and slow the spread of the virus.

lweber@durangoherald.com

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