An inmate at the Santa Fe County jail has tested positive for the new coronavirus, marking the second person behind bars in New Mexico with a confirmed case of the respiratory illness.
A Santa Fe County spokeswoman said Monday that the man had come into contact with Jennifer Burrill, a Santa Fe-based public defender who contracted COVID-19 and tested positive last month.
But Burrill disputed that claim in an interview later Monday evening.
On Tuesday, County Manager Katherine Miller said officials don’t know how the man contracted the virus. His name had been on an internal county schedule to meet with a public defender on March 11, she said, prompting the jail to test him “out of an abundance of caution” on March 28.
That test came back negative, Miller said, and the man was placed in a dormitory-style pod with 33 other inmates until he began complaining of COVID-19 symptoms late last week. At that point, he was moved into a quarantine pod and tested again—this time, on Sunday, the result came back positive.
Miller says state Health Department officials tested the other 33 inmates after the man’s positive test. The county learned Tuesday those tests were all negative, as were tests on five county and contract staff who had contact with the man.
Three more staffers’ tests are pending, according to Miller. That means officials are still trying to figure out how the inmate, 38, contracted the virus.
He’s been locked up on drug possession charges since last July. And according to Burrill, the man has a health condition that could make him more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19.
“We can’t pinpoint the date where he might have contracted this—only when he began feeling ill, which was the beginning of April,” Miller says. “We need to wait for the other three test results to be able to know more.”
Jails around the nation have become hotspots for COVID-19, with hundreds of inmates and scores of jail staffers testing positive in Louisiana, New York, Illinois and elsewhere. Some have died of complications from the virus while still incarcerated.
Outbreaks among incarcerated people and those who work supervising them have prompted calls from criminal justice reform advocates and medical professionals to reduce jail and prison populations by releasing nonviolent inmates.
Santa Fe County jail officials compiled a list of 66 inmates who are locked up on nonviolent charges and are medically vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 for possible early release, Miller says. So far, 12 of those people have been released.
In Bernalillo County, where an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 last month, a few dozen medically vulnerable people who are awaiting trial on minor offenses have been freed.
In total, more 59 inmates at the Santa Fe County jail have been tested. Three of those tests are pending. And 14 county and contract staff have been tested, with four pending. Aside from the lone inmate who tested positive on Sunday, no inmates or staff have tested positive, Miller says.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 1,407 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico; 76 of those are in Santa Fe County. Thirty-six people have died of the disease in the state.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include information from Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller.
This story was co-published with the Santa Fe Reporter, a New Mexico In Depth partner.