COVID

Fewer than 5 percent of Texas county jails have reported positive coronavirus tests, raising serious questions from family members, residents, and health care professionals about whether many jails are even testing.

Of the more than 200 county jails in Texas, only 11 have reported instances of coronavirus among inmates and staff. Those counties include Harris, Dallas, and Bexar – all large, urban areas.

Anderson County Jail has reported no cases.

Questions, however, about the scope of the testing remain unanswered. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards will not release the numbers of tests conducted – or even the testing criteria.

In an email Tuesday to the Herald-Press, the commission, which oversees the state's 250 county jails, said it is suspending normal obligations under the state's Public Information Act because of the public health emergency.

“Because the physical office of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is closed due to the current health concern, it is suspending its response to public information requests,” TCJS spokesman William Turner stated.

“When the office reopens, it will resume responding to public information requests; deadlines for existing requests will resume at that time."

A law enacted in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 gives governmental bodies, with closed offices due to a public health emergency, 14 business days, instead of 10, to respond to open-records requests.

What's more, under the emergency law, days in which public agencies have employees who work from home are not counted as business days.

That means the clock has not started ticking for open records requests submitted since the governor’s declaration of emergency two months ago.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the Herald-Press public agencies are abusing the law.

“The public needs this information to understand the virus,” Shannon said.  “The information is necessary for people to know their role during this crisis.

“People need more information now, not less. We intend to bring it up at the next legislative session.”

The lack of testing information from the state makes it impossible for residents to prepare, health professionals told the Herald-Press.

“Families of the guards and the community-at-large deserve to know how much testing is done,” Dr. Carolyn Salter, a Palestine physician, said. “In incarcerated, institutional environments, you can only be sure if 100 percent of the people are tested.”

Even with the low number of jails reporting positive tests, the number of cases among jail inmates statewide has almost doubled in one week – from 569 on April 29 to 1,119 Friday.

Harris County Jail accounts for nearly half of all positive virus results.

With 185 confirmed cases, Harris also accounts for more than half of the 314 jailers who have tested positive.

“The [low] numbers seem unlikely,” Salter said. “The only way they can be so low...is that they’re simply not testing.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has called jails and prisons the “epicenter of the coronavirus,” warns that overcrowded jails and prisons, combined with inadequate testing, will likely lead to a “massive loss of life – both in jails and in surrounding communities.”

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