On alert for COVID-19 outbreak, Travis County makes 'extraordinary effort' to thin out jail population
Betty Lewis was already nervous about the new coronavirus outbreak when she got a phone call from the Travis County jail in mid-March.
Her son, 53-year-old Bryan, was sitting in jail on a misdemeanor after being accused of threatening to beat up someone during an argument five months earlier.
Not an insurmountable situation under normal circumstances, but Lewis was terrified that her son was locked up while the contagious new coronavirus was virtually clawing at the jailhouse doors.
"People were already dying [around the world], so that was a great fear," she said. "All you know is that your family member is enclosed with this situation that we have, and that's not a good thing."
In late March, Bryan joined the growing numbers of Travis County inmates released from the jail thanks to efforts by judges and county officials to reduce the inmate population and slow spread of the disease through the jail system.
Those moves have resulted in nearly 600 inmates released since Feb. 25 in Travis County, said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.
The jail system, composed of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle and the Travis County Jail downtown, has a capacity of 2,975, she said.
Some 26 inmates were in quarantine on Wednesday morning, many of whom are there because they refused to answer screening questions on intake, Dark said.
There were 63 newly booked inmates in single-cell isolation for 10-14 days as part of a new program begun this week to separate all new arrestees with or without symptoms to prevent new cases, she said.
There have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in either jail, as of Wednesday morning, Dark said.
Dark said the decline in population is a result of the "extraordinary effort" by jail officials, attorneys, judges and police that includes:
- Isolating every new accused offender booked into the jails
- Daily health screenings of employees, police, vendors and inmates coming into the jails
- Virtual video courtrooms created to speed up the adjudication of some cases and avoid coronavirus-related delays
- Banning in-person visits
- Prioritizing the adjudication or bonds of cases in which inmates are still in jail
- Quarantining of inmates being watched for virus symptoms
- Lowered bonds for low-risk people accused of nonviolent crimes, both misdemeanors and low-level felonies
- Fewer arrests on the street for nonviolent crimes
- Automatic release with no bail (personal bonds) for newly arrested people who come through Central Booking on certain nonviolent crimes, instead of routing them to a jail cell to wait for trial
- Daily review of felony cases by the prosecutors to determine if any of them are a good fit for bond or plea deals.
"Everybody is doing their part to avoid having COVID-19 coming into our jail," Dark said.
Human rights is certainly part of the equation when making these moves, but even more than that is the concern that an epidemic inside the jail will translate into explosive numbers outside the jail, said Claire Carter, Bryan's attorney.
In addition to the inmates currently in the Travis County system, the jail has nearly 1,000 staffers.
"They're going home to families, or they might be going to the grocery store on the way home, filling up their cars with gas," Carter said. "All the things the public is being told to be careful of."
Bryan, whose last name is not being used over fears his housing situation could be compromised, was released after using a pilot video-court program—designed in response to the outbreak—that allowed him to enter his plea of no contest within days of his arrest, Carter said. He was sentenced to time served and allowed to go home.
In other cases, personal recognizance bonds are automatic for people arrested on nonviolent charges after Travis County judges ordered them in late March.
That order only affects people who are arrested into Central Booking, not those already moving through the legal system. The latter cases are still decided on an individual basis. People doing time for convictions are not included in early release programs.
An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday forbade the courts to release on personal bonds any accused offender—nonviolent or otherwise—who had been convicted in the past of a violent crime or the threat of violence.
The order, handed down in response to programs such those in Travis County, also included any inmate currently charged with similar crimes. It also stipulates that the order doesn't hinder any judge's ability to make individual decisions based on health or medical issues.
Some judges in Travis and other counties objected to the order, saying it hinders their ability to make case-by-case decisions, and vowed to continue to make those decisions regardless of Abbott's order.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in an interview Monday the order will change at least one thing: Travis County court officials will have to remove arrested people from the automatic personal bond program if there is any violence or threat of violence in their histories.
But otherwise, Moore, who said she spent hours on the phone Monday with judges and county officials discussing the order, said she doesn't anticipate the order will substantially change how Travis County is already handling accused offenders.
She also said that the jail population, at this point, is about as low as it can get, but that it's hard to say what will happen with the numbers going forward.
"We'll see how the judges step up and handle it, and if the jail dockets increase," she said. "Right now, it's too soon to tell."
To help make sense of all the information emerging about COVID-19 in Austin, we're answering a few big questions:
Is the COVID situation improving?<p>Not quite.</p> <p>Local health officials have identified hospital admissions as a key metric because it is not affected by reporting delays or testing shortages.</p> <p>"It's a good predictor of actual case burden in the community," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday.</p> <p>The number of COVID-related hospitalizations in the Austin metro has held steady for the last 10 days. </p> <p>"The trend has been relatively flat," Escott said. </p><p><br>Since the start of the month, the average number of hospitalized COVID patients has declined 44%, from 146.8 on Sept. 1 to 82 on Sept. 29. </p> <p>But the average number of new cases reported each day has increased 42%—from 78 to 111.1—over that same time period. </p> <p>Escott has attributed these diverging trend lines to the increasing number of cases among young people, who are much less likely to require hospitalization than older patients. </p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ1MTI3Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTk4MDI4NH0.XxvY7wkBOfT-BtHF8JhtIGX0Dv8apitlsV-JZMb53pA/img.png?width=980" id="f2149" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e69fc96d61833754a62b5ea7a5e9cb3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
What is a "twindemic"?<p>It's time to add another word to your pandemic vocabulary.</p><p>Health experts have raised concerns of a "twindemic," when the COVID pandemic inevitably overlaps with the annual flu season, which begins in October.</p><p>Last year's flu season was particularly bad, Escott said last week, and local ICUs hit capacity from flu patients alone.</p><p>"Our hospitals cannot handle surges of both," he said. "We're going to have to ration care."</p><p>Escott has encouraged Austinites to <a href="https://austonia.com/flu-season-austin" target="_self"><u>get vaccinated</u></a> before the flu season intensifies this winter. </p><div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="187ed35bc13596eb1d0e6e1e0ba084ea"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/austinpublichealth/posts/3992955670717819"></div></div>
What is going on with schools?<p>Austin ISD is preparing to reopen <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-school-reopening" target="_self"><u>for in-person learning</u></a> next week, following in the footsteps of other area districts, including Eanes ISD and Round Rock ISD.</p><p>Escott is supportive of AISD's reopening plan, which follows Austin Public Health guidelines to start capacity limits at 25%. He said there is no evidence that disease transmission is occurring in classrooms or <a href="https://twitter.com/AustinISD/status/1310716756374237186" target="_blank">while students are passing in hallways</a>.</p><p>"For those who are concerned about putting teachers at risk, I'm married to an educator, and she went into school today," Escott told the AISD board of trustees on Monday. </p><p>He added that the risk of transmission appears to be limited to extracurricular and social activities, where students may not be wearing masks or adhering to social distancing guidelines. </p><p>In total, local primary and secondary schools that have already reopened have reported 24 COVID cases among students and 21 among staff since mid-August, according to APH data shared Tuesday. An additional 116 people have been identified as "close contacts" of impacted students and staff. </p><p>The University of Texas at Austin <a href="https://austonia.com/ut-austin-spring-semester" target="_self"><u>announced this week</u></a> that it is planning on a spring semester structured "in much the same way" as the current term. </p><p>In a community-wide email sent on Monday, President Jay Hartzell commended students for making adjustments, which he wrote have helped keep the university's COVID numbers "as low as possible."</p><p>Since the current semester began on Aug. 26, the university has reported more than 700 cases among students and fallen short of its stated goal to test 5,000 asymptomatic community members a week. </p><p>Hartzell said the university is working out "some kinks" in its proactive testing program, including not requiring a second confirmatory test for students' whose rapid tests return positive results, allowing for walk-up testing without an appointment and debuting a new incentive program, details of which are forthcoming.</p>
What metrics would help determine a drop to a Stage 2 level of risk?<p>The number of new COVID hospitalizations each day would need to fall below 10, on average, and the local positivity rate would need to drop to 3% or lower for local health officials to recommend a move to Stage 2 of <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-covid-stage-3" target="_blank">their risk-based guidelines</a>, Escott said.</p><p>At this lower level, recommended restrictions would loosen. Social gatherings would be allowed to increase from 10 people to 25, and residents would be allowed to resume non-essential trips and return to work at reopened businesses.</p><p>Travis County is currently reporting 12 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day, on average.</p><p>The overall positivity rate was 4.4% last week, but disparities remain across demographic groups, with Latino residents returning a positivity rate of 8%. </p>
What about testing?<p>Demand for testing has declined post-surge. </p> <p>Escott said last week that testing sites administered by APH are testing about 2,000 people a week despite having the capacity to test more than a thousand people a day.</p> <p>It is important to note, however, that the testing numbers reported by APH do not include the positive results from <a href="https://austonia.com/rapid-covid-test" target="_self"><u>rapid antigen tests</u></a> because of CDC guidance that they be considered "probable" and not "confirmed." </p> <p>Like the genetic, or polymerase chain reaction tests, administered at APH testing sites, rapid antigen tests detect positive infections. They also provide results in about 15 minutes, which is central to their appeal.</p> <p>While they are marginally less accurate, rapid antigen tests are in fairly wide use. Some private testing sites in the Austin area report that <a href="https://austonia.com/coronavirus-test" target="_self"><u>the majority of the tests</u></a> they conduct are rapid due to patient demand. </p> <p>Between Aug. 6 and Sept. 24, a total of 2,174 positive rapid antigen test results were reported in Travis County, according to APH. The department would not release information pertaining to the number of positive antigen tests performed overall. </p> <p>During that same time period, 6,648 COVID cases were confirmed by positive genetic test results in Travis County. </p> <p>If the cases detected by rapid antigen testing were considered "confirmed" rather than "probable," the local caseload between Aug. 6 and Sept. 24 would have increased by about a third. </p>
What is post-COVID syndrome?<p>Nine months into the COVID pandemic, doctors across the world are reporting that the virus has become a chronic condition—post-COVID syndrome—for some patients, known as long-haulers.</p> <p>"As people recover from the initial infection, studies are starting to show that in some patients, it might actually take weeks or even months to return to baseline health," Dr. Esther Melamed, an assistant professor of neurology at Dell Medical School, said in a press release issued Tuesday. </p> <p>Long-hauler symptoms may include difficulty breathing, headaches, memory problems, overwhelming fatigue and persistent loss of taste and smell, as well as worsening of pre-COVID conditions, such as diabetes and mood disorders. </p><video controls id="8e12e" width="100%" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc522351e8e55862283aed7dc73050d" expand="1" feedbacks="true" mime_type="video/mp4" shortcode_id="1601497346135" url="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19818-Melamed-Post-COVID-Syndrome---Media.mp4" videoControls="true"> <source src="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19818-Melamed-Post-COVID-Syndrome---Media.mp4" type="video/mp4"> Your browser does not support the video tag. </video>
What is the status of federal coronavirus relief funding?<p>Local and state governments must spend all of the federal coronavirus relief dollars they received through the CARES Act by the end of the calendar year, despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic and <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/pelosi-mnuchin-set-to-talk-as-.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>the absence of additional relief packages</u></a> passed by Congress. </p> <p>"We must continue to provide testing and contact tracing," APH Director Stephanie Hayden told Austin City Council on Tuesday. "Those efforts have really helped us as a city and a county… We have to just flag it for you all that federal funding is slated to end this December."</p> <p>Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday that the state will allocate $171 million of CARES Act funding to help renters <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/25/texas-rent-help-evictions/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>avoid eviction</u></a>.</p> <p>The Travis County Commissioners Court discussed last week how best to meet the December deadline. As of mid-September, the county has spent less than one-fifth of the federal relief dollars it received through the CARES Act, although the remainder has been allocated.</p>
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