Summit County jail closes amid staffing concerns after employee tests positive for COVID-19

One of the holding cells at the Summit County Detention Facility in Breckenridge.
Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily archive

BRECKENRIDGE — The Summit County jail closed down to new inmates this past weekend after a detentions deputy tested positive for COVID-19, according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons.

Late Saturday afternoon, FitzSimons said he was informed that a member of the detentions staff at the Summit County Justice Center tested positive for COVID-19 while undergoing a routine screening before a scheduled surgical procedure in Park County. The employee was asymptomatic at the time they tested positive.

FitzSimons said he ordered the closure of the jail immediately out of an abundance of caution and that he began notifying other stakeholders in the community — including the Summit County Sheriff’s Office command staff, the county’s public health department, court staff, the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, local police chiefs and more — in accordance with planned pandemic protocols to make sure officials could act accordingly in their efforts to protect the rest of the staff and inmates at the facility.

“Although the timing of the incident was unexpected, it certainly was anticipated and planned for,” FitzSimons said. “We always knew it was a possibility; we just weren’t sure when. The seamless execution of the Detention Facility Closure COVID Plan speaks to our longstanding relationships between the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, our local law enforcement partners, Summit County Government, courts and district attorney’s office.”

Because the employee tested positive in Park County, FitzSimons said the contact-tracing investigation became a joint effort between the Park and Summit public health departments to try to determine who the individual had contact with and to get them into quarantine as quickly as possible.

FitzSimons said public health workers determined there was no increased risk of COVID-19 exposure to inmates already in the jail but that eight employees were identified as having close contact with the individual and were immediately quarantined. Among those eight, six were detentions employees and two were sheriff’s office employees outside of the detentions division.

The quarantined staff won’t be able to return to work until at least Oct. 8, and FitzSimons said the jail wouldn’t be reopened until staffing concerns have been resolved and he has a chance to confer with Chief Judge Mark Thompson and District Attorney Bruce Brown to make sure everyone has their ducks in a row before opening the doors to new arrestees.

“We’re leaving it closed until employees come back, because we just don’t have enough people to run the jail,” FitzSimons said. “… It’s really about intake and the movement of prisoners into courts. That’s why we need to work with the DA and the courts to make sure everyone is on board for the next week. But we’re limping.”

Protecting the Summit County Justice Center from possible outbreaks has been a priority for officials since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to help keep employees and those who are incarcerated healthy. In March, the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office went to work pushing up parole hearings for prison inmates and getting locals released early from their jail sentences

Similarly, local law enforcement agencies around the county have been making a concerted effort to mitigate risks, opting to issue summonses in lieu of arrests whenever possible to minimize the number of people going in and out of the jail, and taking extra precautions like screening detained individuals in the sally port (a controlled entryway to the jail) before putting them behind bars or getting them in front of a judge.

But with the jail closed, officials are relying even more on fast turnarounds from the courts. Earlier this year, the courts implemented new districtwide protocols to keep an on-call judge ready for emergency hearings so that individuals who were arrested could get their advisement quickly and potentially get released before coming into contact with the rest of the jail population.

FitzSimons said that if an individual were arrested and presented a public safety risk too significant to be released back into the community, plans are already in place to have them held at another jail in Eagle, Clear Creek or Park counties. So far, jail staff hasn’t had to transfer anyone to another jurisdiction.

While new detainees aren’t being allowed into the jail, FitzSimons said the facility is otherwise operating normally and that staff would still be releasing any individuals scheduled to get out before the jail reopens.

FitzSimons said there are about 45 detentions employees with the county and that staff members are having to put in some overtime to help fill the gaps while others are quarantined.    

“Everyone has risen to the occasion,” FitzSimons said. 

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