Upgrades to the El Paso County Detention Facility in Downtown, including its heating and cooling system and fire alarm and security systems, are among projects that would be funded through certificate of obligation bonds. (El Paso Matters file photo)

Forty inmates and five detention officers have tested positive in recent days for COVID-19 at El Paso’s two county jails. Sheriff Richard Wiles said the infections appear to be happening in the community.

“All of them so far, although they’re still working on doing (contact tracing), are people that have been booked and it is believed they brought it in from the outside. So there is no outbreak at the jails that we’re aware of,” Wiles said.

The Downtown jails has had 37 positive tests among inmates over the past couple of days, as well as three inmates at the jail annex in Far East El Paso, the sheriff said.

Four detention officers at the Downtown jail and one at the jail annex have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, Wiles said. It is believed they contracted the illness in the community and not in the jail, he said.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in El Paso County, with 990 new cases confirmed last week, 67 percent more than the previous weekly high. After the first two days of this week, it appears that El Paso County could have well over 1,000 new cases this week.

About half of all new cases in recent days have been among people in their 20s and 30s. Wiles said that age group accounts for large numbers of jail bookings.

Wiles said only four inmates at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19 before the recent eruption of cases in the El Paso community.

The three inmates who tested positive at the jail annex had been moved there after testing negative for COVID-19 at the Downtown jail, the sheriff said. He said the jail likely will not move an inmate for 14 days, the outer edge of the COVID-19 incubation period, regardless of test results.

Newly booked inmates are isolated for 14 days. Those who test positive are isolated from the general population, the sheriff said.

Wiles said he is concerned about not being informed about positive COVID-19 results among inmates in a timely manner. He had been told the Downtown jail had 20 positive cases as of Monday morning, only to learn a short time later from the city’s Office of Emergency Management that the true number was 37.

“For some reason there’s a delay in getting test results,” Wiles said. He said University Medical Center, which provides testing at the jail, is working with the city’s Department of Public Health, which generates results and informs those who tested positive, to end the delays.

An inmate known to be positive for COVID-19 gets additional medical attention, Wiles said.

“We have medical staff 24/7 at both of our facilities so they’re getting medical treatment. And they’re also being checked as per jail standards. So somebody is checking on them every 30 minutes as required by the Texas jail standards,” he said.

A city spokeswoman dismissed Wiles’ concerns about slow test results. “The Department of Public Health and (Office of Emergency Management) have an integrated response and there is no delay in information exchange. Staff reports testing data as efficiently as possible to the affected agencies,” spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.