Jail virus tests off in Pulaski County

Wait times of two weeks for resultsnot workable, sheriff’s office says

FILE — Fencing along the second floor railing in the two-story jail pods at the Pulaski County jail is shown in this 2017 file photo.
FILE — Fencing along the second floor railing in the two-story jail pods at the Pulaski County jail is shown in this 2017 file photo.

LITTLE ROCK -- Pulaski County jail officials have abandoned a plan to conduct weekly rounds of coronavirus testing of detainees at the state's largest county jail because of delays associated with receiving the results.

According to Mitch McCoy, a spokesman for the Pulaski County sheriff's office, the nearly two-week turnaround time between administering tests and receiving the results from a health care provider rendered unworkable a plan to test detainees and employees every Tuesday.

McCoy said the sheriff's office has facilitated approximately 400 tests at the jail since June 1. Around 360 were conducted by a local health care provider, Jefferson Comprehensive Care System Inc., McCoy said.

"We temporarily suspended testing through Jefferson Comprehensive Care last week because of the lab's nearly two week turnaround on test results," McCoy wrote in an email Wednesday.

Last week, the Arkansas Department of Health tested more people at the jail because a recent detainee had tested positive for the virus, according to McCoy.

"After a review, that inmate only had contact with one other detainee, who tested negative," he wrote.

An employee also tested positive during last week's testing, McCoy said. Jail officials are working with the Health Department to conduct more testing, he said.

As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. has surged in many states -- including Arkansas -- during the first part of the summer, many people are still experiencing long waits at testing sites and delays with receiving their results.

Labs are experiencing shortages of supplies and workers needed to process tests as demand increases, The Associated Press reported this week.

Jefferson Comprehensive Care System is a nonprofit provider that serves patients in Central Arkansas.

In an interview Wednesday, Sandra Brown, CEO of the health care provider, said the commercial laboratory that Jefferson relies on to process covid-19 tests has struggled to return test results in a timely manner. She called the situation "very disappointing."

Jefferson uses the nationwide commercial laboratory company LabCorp to process test results, Brown said.

"Initially, it was a two- to three-day turnaround for getting results, but now it is greater than five, eight days," Brown said.

The company has been apologetic about the delays, she said.

Jefferson Comprehensive Care did not charge Pulaski County or the jail's health care provider, Turn Key Health Clinics, for the testing conducted at the jail, according to Brown.

County jails in Arkansas have not been ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak in the same way as state and federal prisons in the state, such as the Cummins Unit state prison, where at least 11 inmates have died. But there have been small- to medium-scale outbreaks at county lockups around Arkansas.

According to the Health Department, the largest outbreak at a jail has occurred in Benton County, where 188 detainees and 13 staff members have tested positive. Those cases are still listed as active, meaning the infected people have not yet recovered.

At the Washington County jail, 18 inmates and one staff member have tested positive, and at the Faulkner County jail, eight detainees have tested positive.

The Pulaski County jail has the capacity to hold more than 1,200 detainees and, although the number of people held in the jail is generally much lower than the maximum capacity, an outbreak at the jail could be problematic.

Complicating efforts to test people at the jail is the fact that officials cannot force detainees to take a test, according to officials at the sheriff's office.

Late last month, Lt. Robert Garrett with the Pulaski County sheriff's office said the jail still had not received any results from a testing effort facilitated by Jefferson Comprehensive Care, which had taken place the week before.

In an interview June 30, Garrett said the jail was testing 200 more people that day, even as jail officials waited for results from the previous round of testing.

"I'm sure that's going to back them up even more," Garrett said at the time.

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