Inside the Rock County Jail in a cellblock with a few dozen other COVID-19 infected inmates, 26-year-old Deon Smith is scared.
His mother said his chest hurts when he breathes, and it has hurt for days.
The 26-year-old Beloit man is afraid, his mother said, because he tested positive for COVID-19 last week, one of the first 29 inmates red-flagged in a coronavirus outbreak that additional testing late last week showed had mushroomed to at least 86 of 234 inmates in the jail.
On Sunday evening, Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson told The Gazette a small handful of inmate tests remained pending.
But he said as of Sunday night, nurses at the jail have reported that none of the inmates who have tested positive in the outbreak have been sick enough to require treatment outside the jail.
That might offer some comfort to Deon Smith’s mother, Lakesha Smith.
But Lakesha and families of dozens of other inmates are stuck viewing jail life from outside a bubble that a pandemic has made more difficult to peer into.
Lakesha worries because she said despite Deon telling jail staff and nurses of his chest pain, a symptom her son thinks might be a complication of COVID-19 illness, Deon believes his worries aren’t being taken seriously.
Lakesha Smith fears for her son and other inmates in his unit, who she claims have just one wireless tablet to share to make calls to the outside world. She’s grown more anxious over Deon’s condition, which she said doesn’t seem to be changing and isn’t improving, despite jail nurses telling her son he’s “fine.”
As of late afternoon on Sunday, Smith said, jail staff had repeatedly denied Deon’s pleas to be taken to a local hospital for evaluation and a second opinion as he rides out COVID-19 alongside other infected inmates in an outbreak that sheriff’s administrators said last week put the facility into an “emergency phase.”
“Nothing’s changed in days, and they just keep telling him that his chest doesn’t hurt. How do they even know if his chest hurts? They keep telling him it’s nothing,” Lakesha Smith told The Gazette in a phone interview Sunday.
As of late last week, the jail reported just two of the 86 known infected inmates at the time had been taken to a hospital for evaluation of COVID-19 symptoms, and Knudson said one of those inmates was later returned to the jail.
Smith’s mother said she’s repeatedly called jail supervisors and contract jail nurses to advocate for her son, who is in the jail’s RECAP work program.
She said her son’s public defender also has been speaking with jail officials and nurses.
Lakesha Smith said she’s worried her son’s health could take a nosedive and she might not know about his condition quickly enough to continue pressing the jail over his well-being.
Smith said she knows two others whose son and brother are among the COVID-19-positive inmates in the jail.
“We are just very concerned about our loved ones being in there being mistreated or not treated,” she said.
The jail late last week implemented an infection control response that among other measures involved moving inmates into “cohort” groups in different units.
That measure, the jail’s administration has said, is aimed at fire-walling off inmates who’ve tested positive from those who’ve tested negative or are asymptomatic.
Knudson said Sunday the jail plans an upcoming wave of additional testing that would be offered to inmates who tested negative for COVID, part of a continued canvassing for any additional infections that might not have showed up in earlier tests.
“I do plan to make another (testing) round,” Knudson said. “I just want to make sure that somebody who tested (earlier) wasn’t in an incubation mode.”
Knudson said the sheriff’s office also is monitoring jail staff for signs of COVID-19, and the contract nurses who work at the jail have their own protocol for testing.
As of last week, 219 inmates had submitted to testing, and 128 inmates tested negative for the virus, the sheriff’s office said.
The sheriff’s office said all work previously handled by jail inmates, such as kitchen, laundry and sanitation details had been temporarily handed to jail staff in an attempt to avoid further spread of COVID-19.
The sheriff’s office has not shared what criteria the jail and its nurses are using to decide if some inmates would require treatment at a hospital or further evaluation of symptoms by doctors outside the jail.
But Knudson said last week the jail has two cells with special air handling units geared for inmates with tuberculosis. He said Sunday both those cells are being used by inmates who now have COVID-19.
The jail earlier this year had thinned the inmate population from about 430 inmates to 234, a move aimed at creating more space and minimizing the risk of COVID-19 spreading among inmates and jail staff.
Knudson said the jail has since the pandemic’s start stepped up cleaning of spaces, using multiple disinfection methods, including a robotic cleaning unit he said runs nearly constantly.
The sheriff’s office initially tested a fraction of inmates but ramped up testing to offer it to all inmates after it was able to access more test kits.
Sheriff’s officials said infections initially spread among inmates in multiple cellblocks in the jail. It’s not clear if particular cellblocks or units were hit harder by the virus than others.
Knudson said nurses on call around the clock have been checking on infected inmates twice daily, answering their questions and discussing any symptoms they might have.
He said family and friends of inmates are still allowed at the jail to make personal visits to inmates, but all those visits are still being conducted virtually using electronic tablets.