An inmate at the Santa Fe County jail has tested positive for the new coronavirus, marking the second person behind bars in New Mexico with a confirmed case of the respiratory illness.
The man was one of nine people who came into contact with Jennifer Burrill, a Santa Fe-based public defender who contracted COVID-19 and tested positive last month, according to county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart, who did not name Burrill.
However, reached by telephone Monday evening, Burrill said she had no interactions with the man during her time at the jail and had not put his name on a list of inmates for the county and the state Department of Health to track down because of interactions with her.
That raises questions about how the inmate contracted the virus. He’s been locked up on drug possession charges since last July. And according to Burrill, the man has a health condition that could make him more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19.
The man initially tested negative on March 28, Hart said, but began complaining of symptoms last Tuesday. So jail officials tested him again and learned he was positive on Sunday.
Hart would not say why the county didn’t notify the public until Monday afternoon of the positive test result.
Jails around the nation have become hotspots for COVID-19, with hundreds of inmates and scores of jail staffers testing positive in Louisiana, New York, Illinois and elsewhere. Some have died of complications from the virus while still incarcerated.
Outbreaks among incarcerated people and those who work supervising them have prompted calls from criminal justice reform advocates and medical professionals to reduce jail and prison populations by releasing nonviolent inmates.
It is not clear whether Santa Fe County has taken any of those steps.
In Bernalillo County, where an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 last month, a few dozen medically vulnerable people who are awaiting trial on minor offenses have been freed.
The Santa Fe inmate has been locked up since July 14, 2019, Hart says. He was sentenced to jail time in August for drug possession and failing to comply with conditions of release on a previous charge.
After learning of the man’s positive test result, Santa Fe officials brought in Department of Health personnel to test 33 more inmates Monday, Hart says. Those people have all been moved to an expanded “quarantine pod” inside the jail, where they are all in single-person cells.
Additionally, the Health Department tested eight corrections officers who may have had contact with the male inmate who has contracted the virus, Hart says. Those officers are in isolation at home, she adds.
County officials expect the results of the 41 inmates’ and staffers’ tests by Wednesday, Hart says.
In total, more than 50 inmates at the jail have been tested.
As of Monday afternoon, there were 1,345 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico; 76 of those are in Santa Fe County. Thirty-one people have died of the disease in the state.
This story was co-published with the Santa Fe Reporter, an NMID partner.