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More than 70 inmates and 16 workers at Cecil County jail test positive for COVID-19, a sharp increase, state says

More than 70 inmates in the Cecil County Detention Center in Elkton have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, six times the number reported just seven days earlier, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

The totals released Wednesday show that 16 staff members also have contracted the coronavirus, up from nine the previous week. The county said 72 inmates have tested positive, while 133 inmates and 84 staff members received negative test results. Three results are pending.

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The outbreak is the largest in a jail or prison in the state since the virus struck Maryland in March.

A review of state health department records underscore the steep increase in Cecil County’s jail system. Two weeks ago, on Oct. 7, the system reported that just one inmate and four correctional officers had tested positive for the virus.

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Chief Deputy Gerald Widdoes of the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office said the detention center has been “working closely” with the Cecil County Health Department and the facility’s contracted medical provider. The health department conducted mass testing of all correctional officers, civilian employees and contract staff from Oct. 9 to Oct. 13, Widdoes said.

“We have previously identified vulnerable inmates, such as those with underlying medical conditions, and have worked with the court systems to alter their bond conditions where appropriate,” Widdoes said. “Public safety is, and will continue to be, our top priority. The health of our inmates and staff in our correctional facility is closely monitored.”

Widdoes said coronavirus safety procedures have been in place since March, with measures including quarantining inmates in an effort to reduce exposure. The facility also has extended jail phone call time and altered television access, Widdoes said.

Cecil’s detention center is not run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which has reported that its jails and prisons have remained relatively stable in terms of number of cases and deaths. As of Monday, 993 inmates in the state system have tested positive for the virus, with 11 having died.

Two correctional officers, both working out of Baltimore City facilities, have died from the virus, and 755 prison staff members have been diagnosed as positive since the pandemic began, according to state corrections department numbers released Monday.

The state has underscored its efforts to provide protective equipment and sanitizing, along with procedures to keep inmates socially distanced.

But prison advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Maryland, have warned that the measures are not enough, and that more must be done to prevent further deaths of inmates or staff.

“It is a tremendous concern when we have people who die in the custody of the state,” said Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU in Maryland.

Kumar said that throughout the months of battling the pandemic, many of the complaints about prisons and jails are consistent, such as a lack of testing and not properly notifying people who have tested positive. Inmates and staff also are using protective equipment at a faster rate than it is being supplied, correctional officer union leaders and advocacy groups have said.

“From the perspective of the people inside, they are completely at the mercy of the officials in charge. So I may not have any reason to trust that someone is making sure that if people come back to the unit, it is actually safe for them to do so," Kumar said. “I think part of what is important for people to understand is that there are often delays in how things get done.”

On Wednesday, Maryland’s department of health reported that cases are on the rise statewide.

Maryland officials confirmed 492 new coronavirus cases and eight more deaths caused by COVID-19. Wednesday’s data moves the state to a total of 137,236 confirmed coronavirus cases and 3,912 deaths since the state reported its first confirmed cases.

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The state’s two-week average of new daily reported cases has grown steadily since Sept. 30, growing from 488 to 612 as of Wednesday, according to The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus data.

Current hospitalizations remained relatively flat at 463, one fewer than Tuesday. But among those hospitalized, 131 needed intensive care Wednesday, eight more than Tuesday. The state has seen significant growth in hospitalizations since Sept. 20, when 281 people were hospitalized, but remains well below a late April peak of more than 1,700 hospitalized.

Maryland’s seven-day positivity rate, which measures the percentage of positive tests over a weeklong period, was 3.11%, down from 3.2% Tuesday. The state’s rolling positivity rate has generally trended upward since being at 2.51% as of Sept. 24.

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