The Real Story of COVID-19 and the Cook County Jail

Over 2,500 Officers at the Cook County Department of Corrections have been victims of Sheriff Tom Dart’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Cook County Jail. By failing to provide PPE and adhere to CDC guidelines at the beginning of the outbreak, Sheriff Dart caused 500+ jail staff to become infected with COVID-19; to date five CCDOC Officers have died due to COVID-19. Sheriff Dart’s reign of abuse has led to a higher infection rate among Corrections Officers than jail detainees. Additionally, policies like home checks and frequent mandatory overtime shifts cripple Officers’ recovery time and weaken the immune systems of Officers still at work. A recent spike in COVID-19 cases that began in September and continues into November show the Sheriff still does not have a handle on COVID-19 at the jail while he continues to abuse his staff.

HOW IT STARTED

The Cook County Department of Corrections has been one of the biggest single spreaders of COVID-19 in the United States. Officers reported the appalling conditions in mid-March as incoming jail detainees were brought in standing shoulder to shoulder in close proximity as they were processed and admitted to the jail. Sheriff Dart did not even provide gloves or require masks for his staff that were handling disposable thermometers fresh out of inmates’ mouths.

The first CCDOC Officer testing positive for COVID-19 was reported on March 22nd, and over the next four weeks over 300 more staff would test positive for COVID-19 due to the slow and negligent response by Sheriff Dart. On June 4th, a study conducted by Health Affairs, found that 1-in-6 cases of COVID-19 in Illinois originated from the Cook County Jail. 

Teamsters Local 700 ran mobile billboards targeting Toni Preckwinkle for her refusal to pay all CCDOC Officers Hazard Pay

It is no coincidence that the trajectory of COVID-19 positive cases in the State of Illinois and the Cook County Department of Corrections from March-April mirror one another. When confronted about being responsible for the site that became one of the largest single-spreaders of COVID-19 in America, Sheriff Dart falsely claimed that was because he “was the only one testing anybody” and that he always took a scientific approach, yet when asked about the Health Affairs study, he calls it “phony”, offering no proof to back up his claim.

Sheriff Dart also claimed nobody had a plan to combat COVID-19, but the Cook County Jail experiences outbreaks of influenza every year. For example, in 2013, 700 inmates were infected when a stomach flu outbreak hit the jail. The Sheriff’s Chief of Staff Brad Curry is quoted as saying, “We are used to dealing with this kind of thing like flu outbreaks that a lot of places aren’t.”

Public Health experts urged the Sheriff to develop a comprehensive plan for the entire CCDOC compound to combat COVID-19, but instead he chose to make policy adjustments and focus on the release of inmates to decrease the overall population at the jail. He showed poor leadership and has refused to own up to his failures in preventing the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

DART DOES NOTHING

The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended all jail staff wear masks on April 3rd. While Sheriff Dart did provide some masks to Officers early on, the supply was inadequate and not distributed evenly. At one point, Officers opened a box of N95 respirators only to find that the elastic that secures the mask to the face had deteriorated to the point they were useless. Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) were issued to Officers beginning on April 10th not by the Sheriff, but by Teamsters Local 700. Officers were also given external thermometers designed to read air temperature, not the temperature of a person.

Sheriff Dart did not require Officers to wear masks until after the State of Illinois mandate went into effect. Though the Sheriff claims to have been providing the necessary protective equipment for his staff since the beginning of the pandemic, he does not even mention masks or PPE for his own staff in any official Cook County Sheriff’s Office press releases, until June 8th. And even then he brings up masks being provided for visitors and detainees, not Corrections Officers. (Mind you, United States Federal Prisons did not even start allowing visitors until October.)

Teamsters Local 700 provided hundreds of Officers with masks early on in the pandemic when the Sheriff failed to secure PPE

The lack of PPE and other equipment led to a spike in COVID-19 cases in April when more than 200 CCDOC Staff were out with COVID-19, and more than 100 additional confirmed active cases by mid-May. The Sheriff’s solution to being short staffed was to bring over more than 200 Court Services Deputies to help staff the jail. However, because of the Sheriff opened up new buildings, still more Officers were needed to secure more buildings. This put an incredible strain on the health of the staff that continued working at the jail.

STAFF SUFFERING

Emergency provisions in the Sheriff’s contract with the Officers allowed him to mandate Officers to work 16-hour shifts as often as he wanted due to the pandemic emergency. Some Officers were mandated to work a week straight of 16-hour shifts. This led to incredible fatigue in otherwise healthy Officers, diminishing their immune systems, and destroying Officer morale on the entire compound. At the start of June, 50 CCDOC staff members were still battling COVID-19, and new positive tests were still being reported daily.

By July 17th Sheriff Dart had declared victory over COVID-19 and was patting himself on the back for the great job he did handling the COVID-19 pandemic, however by that time more than 450 CCDOC staff members had contracted COVID-19 and the fight was far from over, especially for those Officers who had to return to work after missing weeks, sometimes months, battling the effects of COVID-19.

CCDOC South Campus Administration Building

For Officers at home recovering from fevers, aches, respiratory symptoms, and more, their recuperation was hampered by the unsettling practice of home checks. If an Officer calls in sick, the Sheriff will send someone from his office to check on the Officer to make sure they are really at home and sick. This practice is mentally and physically stressful for Officers and their families. If an Officer fails to answer a phone call or knock on the door during a home check, they face discipline from the Sheriff. It is awfully hard to rest when you’re anticipating an agent of the County coming to your house, and need to answer the door just to save your job.

There is no requirement for infected Officers to test negative for COVID-19 before they can return to work at the jail. There are no guidelines for reintroducing Officers back to work who have tested positive. Some Officers report still experiencing fatigue and respiratory issues and being routinely mandated once they return to work. Some Officers report a relapse in symptoms and have to take additional time off after they’ve been declared “recovered”. Some Officers facing these problems report that they are denied requests to work details (shifts) more conducive to a healthy sleep schedule or in divisions that involve less physically straining work or involve less direct physical contact with inmates.  Under such conditions, quarantining is nearly impossible.  The Sheriff’s lack of empathy for ailing and exhausted Officers is breathtaking and unforgivable.

NO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

The recent spike of COVID-19 cases at the Cook County Jail highlights the lack of a comprehensive plan to combat COVID-19 and could be a sign of what’s to come if nothing changes and the Illinois population as a whole is put at risk due to the spread of COVID-19 at the Cook County Jail.

As a September spike in cases in Illinois began, Chicago Magazine published a story praising Dart on Sept. 15 about how CCDOC management brought the CCDOC’s initial outbreak in April and May under control. Five days after this article was published, on Sept. 20, the number of current cases at the CCDOC would reach the highest level since June 3. As of today, cases at both Cook County Jail and the state of Illinois are on the upswing.

Daily COVID case numbers are currently spiking at the CCDOC, the city of Chicago, and suburban Cook County. The fact that current COVID cases are again spiking among CCDOC staff – at the same time that spread is increasing in Chicago as a whole – is potentially an indicator that Sheriff Dart’s efforts to control the April outbreak were not the result of any CCDOC-specific measures. Instead, as the current corresponding CCDOC and Chicagoland spikes show, the mitigation of the CCDOC outbreak in April may have been the result of broader, citywide mitigation measures enacted at the same time, such as enacting stay-at-home orders, requiring masks, and expanding COVID testing capacity. Therefore, the current uptick in cases at the CCDOC may continue, as Sheriff Dart previously proved incapable of stemming the tide of CCDOC cases when Chicagoland infection rates spiked in April.      

Sheriff Dart has been instructed by medical experts to come up with a full comprehensive plan for COVID-19 that encompasses everything from inmate intake to Officer’s recovery time to steady PPE distribution. While the Sheriff has made minor changes to policy here and there, he is yet to produce an all-encompassing plan.

Teamsters Local 700 provided hand sanitizer and masks to officers when the Sheriff failed to provide proper PPE

Sheriff Dart has not come up with a plan to hire additional Officers to ease the burden on his exhausted staff. He knows how overworked his staff is and that some of his Officers routinely work 16-hour shifts, go home to sleep for 4-5 hours, then return to work for another 16-hour shift. He knows his deputies borrowed from the courts are not permanent.

Sheriff Dart has not instituted protections for Officers returning to work after testing positive for COVID-19. There remains no negative test requirement to return, and policy changes to allow Officers returning to work to be assigned to different details and divisions more conducive to their post-COVID-19 state.

Sheriff Dart has denied all 2,500 Officers who encountered in the most dangerous COVID-19 environment in America hazard pay. One out of every five Officers at the Cook County Jail has had, or currently has COVID-19. That’s a higher infection rate than nearly any other profession in America. And yet, Sheriff Dart disrespects his Officers by denying the hazard pay they deserve.

Teamsters Local 700 is sick and tired of “Do Nothing Dart” and his lack of action and dangerous policies. It’s time for the Sheriff to admit his faults and give our Officers the protections, dignity, honor and respect they deserve.

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