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Two more local COVID-19 deaths reported; prisons stop accepting county jail transfers

State Journal Register

Thursday, January 13, 2022  |  Article  |  Dean Olsen

Two more COVID-19-related deaths were reported locally Wednesday as the omicron-fueled spread of coronavirus statewide prompted Illinois prison system officials to once again stop accepting newly convicted inmates from county jails.

A Sangamon County man in his 90s died Tuesday after testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. The man had been fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot, according to Jeff Wilhite, spokesman for the Sangamon County Department of Public Health.

An unvaccinated Menard County woman in her 80s died Sunday after being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 21, public health officials said.

The Sangamon health department reported 1,073 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, putting the latest total of cases at 41,958.

COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of 325 Sangamon County residents, and 110 residents with COVID-19 remain hospitalized, officials said.

There were 51 new COVID-19 cases reported among Menard County residents, and eight residents with COVID-19 remained hospitalized. The total of positive cases during the pandemic is 2,765, and there have been COVID-19-related 11 deaths.

The 144 COVID-19-related deaths reported across Illinois on Wednesday was the highest total since 174 deaths were reported Jan. 7, 2021, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

COVID-19 has played a role in the deaths of at least 28,804 Illinoisans during the pandemic, state officials said.

Gov. JB Pritzker said at a news conference Wednesday in Chicago that he has dispatched more than 2,000 federally funded health care workers, some of them registered nurses employed through temporary staffing agencies, to assist strained hospitals in Illinois.

Illinois hospitals were caring for 7,219 COVID-19 inpatients as of Tuesday – the highest number since the pandemic hit Illinois in spring 2020, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, IDPH director.

It’s “too soon to tell” whether the latest surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths has reached its peak, she said. Only 8% of staffed intensive-care beds in Illinois hospitals are open, she said.

IDPH statistics indicate 28% of staffed hospital beds in the state are occupied with patients infected with COVID-19 or suspected of being infected. The high number of COVID-19 patients may be affecting the level of care other patients receive, Ezike said.

“We’re making it difficult for people who are having a heart attack, who end up in a car crash, have their appendix burst, have a cancer-related complication, any kind of medical emergency – we’re threatening the ability of those people to get the care they need,” Ezike said.

She and the Democratic governor encouraged more Illinoisans to get COVID-19 shots and booster shots. About 61% of Illinoisans and 61% of Sangamon County residents have been fully vaccinated.

A recent medical study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated unvaccinated people who had a recent infection were five times more likely to be reinfected with COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated and didn’t have a prior infection.

“For Illinois, if someone is not vaccinated, they are 11 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than someone who actually is vaccinated and boosted,” Ezike said.

Of the 7.7 million Illinoisans who are fully vaccinated, less than one-tenth of 1% of them have been hospitalized, she said.

“We know that these vaccines are effective and are extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital,” Ezike said.

In response to the Illinois Department of Corrections announcement Tuesday that the agency will “temporarily pause” inmate intakes from county jails, the sheriff of Sangamon County and the Springfield-based group representing sheriffs statewide said their jails will become even more overcrowded, and neighborhood safety will suffer as a result.

“We are already over capacity,” Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell said. 

The jail had 16 inmates ready to be transferred to IDOC when Campbell said he was “blindsided” by the state’s announcement.

The release said IDOC “is temporarily pausing intakes from county jails as it responds to COVID-19 outbreaks at correctional facilities. These facilities include the Graham, Logan, Menard and Northern Reception and Classification Centers where county jails transport new admissions.”

The release added, “County sheriffs were notified Tuesday afternoon as part of IDOC’s continued commitment to provide them with frequent, transparent communication.”

The release said 75% of the incarcerated population and 66% of staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Congregate living facilities present unique infection-control challenges due to the lack of quarantine and isolation space,” IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys said in the news release.

But Campbell and Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said IDOC facilities have more room to prevent COVID-19 transmission than county jails.

Kaitschuk noted that the state prison population dropped 40% between mid-2015 and fall 2021, from 47,000 to 28,000.

The Sangamon County Jail, which is designed for 314 inmates, had 339 inmates Wednesday morning, and the overcrowding will only get worse, Campbell said.

To help deal with the temporary inability to transfer inmates to state prison, the sheriff said he will instruct his officers and ask municipal police departments to issue more “notices to appear” in court on the spot when people are arrested.

That way, fewer people will be jailed or brought to the jail to risk spreading COVID-19, he said.

There weren’t any COVID-19-positive inmates in the county jail as of Tuesday, but that probably will change as the jail gets more crowded, the sheriff said.

The change in approach for police in the wake of the IDOC decision will leave more neighborhoods and communities to deal on their own with disruptive and potentially dangerous people without the option of bringing them to the jail for booking or incarceration, Campbell said.

Violent alleged felons and people suspected of domestic battery still will be booked into the jail, he said, predicting a rise in COVID spread as inmates live in even closer quarters.

"Unfortunately, IDOC did not provide any communication or collaboration with the Illinois Sheriffs' Association or any sheriff regarding this suspension although we have repeatedly offered a willingness to discuss issues with the department," Kaitschuk said.

"Jails across the state also have to work through issues created by COVID," he said. "It is impossible to understand how the sheriffs make accommodations while DOC does not. Unfortunately, the issue of DOC picking and choosing when to accept inmates has now been going on for almost 10 years. This decision by DOC will only further exacerbate the challenges at the local level. I don't believe they recognize or care about the hardships they are creating for the jails, because if they did, they would be working with us to address those issues."

The last time IDOC paused the intake of new inmates from county jails because of COVID-19 was between March 26, 2020, and Aug. 3, 2020, Kaitschuk said.

The legislature appropriated $25 million in the current fiscal year budget to reimburse county jails for the care of inmates they had to hold rather than transfer to state prison, he said.

The amount isn’t expected to cover the jails’ total costs of housing those inmates, Kaitschuk said.