BREAKING: King County Jail System to Begin COVID Surveillance Testing on Incarcerated Adults

by Carolyn Bick


The King County Jail system will begin surveillance testing of its incarcerated adult population starting as soon as tomorrow, Jan. 13, according to an internal Jan. 12 email shared with the Emerald

The email says that the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and Jail Health Services (JHS) came to this decision following what it calls “the recent uptick in COVID-positive cases,” ostensibly referring to the two COVID-19 outbreaks in the exact same unit in December 2020 and just last week, the news of which the Emerald broke in both cases.

The email says that the surveillance testing program will begin with what it calls its “inmate-worker” populations at both the King County Jail and the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent. The “inmate-worker” unit in the King County Jail is the unit in which the two outbreaks referenced above occurred. 

The testing program will start at the King County Jail tomorrow and the MRJC on Jan. 14. The initial plan, the email says, is to conduct weekly testing at each site, but that staff “will use these initial testing sessions as an opportunity to inform future tests and frequency.” The email does not indicate whether this means of testing will be scaled up or down based on this single week’s worth of one-time testing at both sites.

The email credits King County Executive Dow Constantine with “support” for the formation of the new COVID-19 surveillance testing team, which consists in part of two new certified nursing assistants and one of what the email calls an “administrative specialist II” for support. The email says that DAJD “is in the process of assigning one corrections officer to support the team,” too.

The email also addresses routine testing for jail staff, too, saying that “[w]e are continuing to focus internally on inmate testing, since our testing programs are the only access to testing that inmates have while they are under our care. All staff have access to testing at any time through Public Health.”

The email closes by asking that King County employees “[p]lease be patient as this team comes on board and as processes for this testing are trialled.”

“Since this is a new endeavor, we anticipate we will learn a lot in the early days and will adjust accordingly, as we always strive toward continuous improvement.”

Between the December outbreak and the January outbreak, nothing in the King County Jail’s cleaning routine appears to have changed, as noted in an Emerald story last week. In that same story, at that time, neither Constantine nor Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) Dir. Patty Hayes committed to or talked about any new initiatives to try to ensure against yet another COVID-19 outbreak amongst the jail’s incarcerated population.

In a Jan. 14 email to the Emerald, DAJD Communications Specialist Noah Haglund said that formal planning for the surveillance testing began this past December, following the 16-person outbreak in the inmate-worker unit. He said that the “uptick” in cases noted in the email is “related to the testing trends we have seen over the past couple of months and is reflective of the testing trends seen in the community.  It includes the in-custody positive screenings that you noted as well as positive screenings on new bookings.”

However, it does not appear the King County Jail system has been performing regular testing. While Haglund said that Jail Health Services has been testing since March 2020, he did not say that this testing was regular, despite the Emerald asking about regular testing.

“Jail Health Services (JHS) has been performing COVID testing in the jails since March of 2020. In August 2020, JHS started rapid screening new arrivals for COVID-19 at MRJC booking and these screenings were expanded to all new arrivals to jail (including KCCF) in September,” Haglund said. “The program was deployed after testing supplies became available and procedures/resources could be put in place to implement it.”

Haglund said it is difficult to estimate the number of people incarcerated in the inmate-worker unit at any one time, since that number is constantly changing. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, there were 18 people incarcerated at the King County Jail’s inmate-worker unit, and 97 at MRJC.

“Individuals continually enter and leave this pool of inmate-workers. Anyone classified as “vulnerable” to COVID-19 cannot serve as an inmate-worker. If a person hits either age or condition criteria for vulnerable status, they are ineligible to serve as an inmate-worker. The current age criterion for vulnerable status is age 60 or older,” Haglund said.

In the summer, after they were arrested by Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, several protestors recounted alleged abuse, while in custody of both the SPD and while incarcerated at the King County Jail. Included in these allegations were that officers tore off masks, and would not replace them with clean ones. These allegations were reported across multiple outlets, in addition to the Emerald.


Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them here, and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image from Pixabay under Creative Commons license.

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