COVID-19: A Colorado Contact-Tracing Horror Story

The entrance to the Sterling Correctional Facility.
The entrance to the Sterling Correctional Facility. Google Maps
Editor's note: After the publication of this note, the Colorado Department of Corrections announced that an 86-year-old inmate housed on the east side of the Sterling Correctional Facility died on May 1 "after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19." The CDOC news release adds: "The Sterling Correctional Facility has been on Phase III modified operations since April 14, 2020. Phase III operations mean that inmates remain in their cells during the quarantine period outside of using the restrooms or showering. All meals and medications are delivered to inmates in their living units. The inmates have access to their normal personal property during the quarantine period, as well as access to mail. The facility has continued to undergo extensive cleaning multiple times a day and staff and inmates are all required to wear face coverings in the facility at all times. All of the inmates on the east side of the facility are having temperature checks done twice daily as an additional screening measure." Continue for our previous coverage.

During his April 29 press conference about COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis talked about the state's increasing capacity to perform contact tracing — identifying people who've been in close proximity to anyone who's tested positive for the novel coronavirus and should immediately be quarantined and/or tested.

But right now, contact tracing is far from a commonplace practice in Colorado, and a story shared with Westword shows how its relative rarity can result in a terrible outcome.

This saga comes from a former inmate who was released from a Colorado prison shortly before it was declared one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the state — something he learned not from public-health officials or representatives of the facility, but from someone he'd met while incarcerated. Now the man, whom we're not identifying in order to protect his privacy, fears that he has the virus; he reached out to us to ask how he can get a test to find out for sure.

The prison in question is the Sterling Correctional Facility, one of six entries in the prison/jail category among the 157 current outbreaks currently listed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — and it's by far the most serious of the batch. The most recent CDPHE stats show that the outbreak at Sterling Correctional has resulted in 241 residents testing positive, with another two considered probable COVID-19 cases. Eleven staff members have also tested positive.

No one connected to the Sterling Correctional outbreak has died from COVID-19, according to CDPHE stats, but the danger is far from academic. Earlier today, we reported on a 78-year-old man determined to have died from the virus two days after being released from Weld County Jail. His death certificate is now part of a federal lawsuit contending that Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams didn't do enough to keep those in his charge safe.

As for the former Sterling inmate, who was imprisoned for a parole violation, he reveals via email that "I was released from Sterling Correctional Facility on April 9th onto what is known as ISPI (ankle monitoring device with restrictions of staying in an apartment from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.). One week after release, a friend I met in the kitchen and hung around with in the yard called me to tell me that he and another 138 people came down with the virus."

The timeline checks out. The CDPHE officially designated Sterling Correction as an outbreak site on April 14, five days after the inmate was freed. Moreover, he reveals that his health condition is compromised, making him even more at risk.

"I am worried that I may have the virus and don't have the resources to get tested," he says. "I have been staying at home except going to grocery store, but I wear a mask and gloves and practice the safe distance away from others. Can you guide me where to be tested?"

In response to this query, we reached out to the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which is handling communication chores related to COVID-19, and a representative promptly sent a comprehensive guide for anyone who fears that they may have been infected.

It's understandable that the inmate didn't know about these resources, considering that he was incarcerated prior to the pandemic and set loose in the middle of it — and it's certainly an enormous task for the state to get in touch with everyone who might have come into contact with someone infected during the Sterling Correctional outbreak. But without such notification, a number of people potentially carrying the virus could be out there in the community, unknowingly spreading the disease to everyone in their orbit.

Here's the advice from the CDPHE (which we copied to the former inmate):
Thanks so much for reaching out and for sharing this message. I would suggest sharing the testing page on our website with the individual.

This web page provides step-by-step directions for testing. It is also important to note that whether or not you are diagnosed with COVID-19, if you don’t need to be hospitalized, your treatment will be the same, no matter the test result.

People with early, mild symptoms (might include a combination of cough, body aches, fatigue, and chest tightness, with or without fever): Self-isolate, and use over-the-counter medications to treat your symptoms — like you would for a cold or other respiratory illness.

People with more definite COVID-19 symptoms: (fever, cough, shortness of breath): Self-isolate, use over-the-counter medications, and, if you think you need medical advice, consider a telehealth visit or nurseline advice before seeking in-person care.

There is also a list of private providers that are offering testing for symptomatic individuals.

If he is uninsured, I have included some helpful information below:

We are working to identify additional options for supporting the uninsured who are impacted through exposure of potential infection by COVID-19. Additionally, we encourage individuals who are uninsured to visit [this page] to apply for Medicaid if they believe they may be eligible, or to Connect for Health, Colorado’s Official Health Insurance Marketplace, to sign up for coverage in the individual marketplace.

We encourage those who are uninsured to use resources provided through the federal government. Local counties may also offer services, but we recommend you contact your local public health agencies to determine if you need testing.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts