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)

Mass testing at El Paso County jails has revealed 174 COVID-19 cases among inmates, Sheriff Richard Wiles said Monday.

The sheriff said 155 inmates at the Downtown jail have tested positive, along with 19 at the East Side jail annex. Fourteen staff members at the Downtown jail also have tested positive.

Mass testing at the Downtown jail began July 2 after 40 inmates and five staff members tested positive. More than 800 tests have been administered so far. The jail annex will have mass testing as soon as tests are available, Wiles said.

Sheriff Richard Wiles

“Information at this time is that the inmates testing positive are contracting the virus outside the facilities,” he said. There’s no indication at this point that the virus is spreading in the jails, Wiles said.

People booked into custody are first taken to the Downtown jail, where they are quarantined for 14 days. Inmates can be transferred to the jail annex after the quarantine period.

The surge in jail cases comes at the same time as an explosion of new cases throughout  El Paso County. The number of confirmed cases in the county has grown by 60 percent in the past two weeks. Many people booked into the jail are in their 20s and 30s, the age groups hit hardest in the current sharp rise in cases, Wiles has said.

“Please keep in mind that just like in the El Paso community, things change in the jail on a day-to-day basis. While we continue to work to keep the numbers as low as possible, we are not turning any arrestees away.  As a matter of fact, in the last three weeks, our (average daily population) has increased from approximately 1,350 to 2,050 inmates,” Wiles said.

University Medical Center, which provides health care at the jail, has begun doing COVID-19 tests on new inmates as they are booked, the sheriff said.

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