What killed Charles Peterson? Although Weld County officials had declined for weeks to reveal the cause, Peterson's death certificate filed by the Weld County Coroner confirms that the 78-year-old man died from COVID-19 on April 1 at the North Colorado Medical Center, two days after he was released from the Weld County Jail.
Peterson's death certificate has now become an exhibit in a federal lawsuit filed against Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams.
Civil rights attorneys, including lawyers from the ACLU of Colorado and the firm of Killmer, Lane and Newman, on April 8 sued Reams in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, arguing that the sheriff did not take the necessary precautions to protect detainees from the spread of COVID-19 in the jail. Even after the facility implemented some measures to mitigate the spread of the illness, such as requiring detainees to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day, the threat of a high rate of transmission remained, the lawsuit argues. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs, asks a federal judge to certify a class of medically vulnerable and older detainees and order their release from the jail. (Since the suit was filed, five of the plaintiffs have been released.)
"Rather than taking proactive measures at the start of this crisis to comply with public health guidance, Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams has openly eschewed the seriousness of the pandemic and ignored the science and data underlying public health experts’ concerns regarding dangerous spread of the virus within overcrowded jails," the suit claims.
On April 30, the two sides spent the day in court, trading testimony before Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer.
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Reams denies the lawsuit's claims; his attorneys say that the jail took the COVID-19 threat seriously throughout March. Reams and his team also point out that the Weld County Jail population is currently at 478, much lower than its capacity of 1,177. And in a statement filed with the court, Reams asserts that the threat to public safety that would be caused by releasing the plaintiffs outweighs the public interest in their release.
Peterson had been booked into the Weld County Jail on March 11 on charges of failing to register as a sex offender, which was also a parole violation. After numerous requests, he was finally released on March 30. When a former roommate from the Rock Found re-entry center in Greeley came to the jail to pick him up, Peterson could "barely walk," was "very sick" and "cold and shivering," according to Cheryl Cook, the executive director of Rock Found, who filed a statement as part of the lawsuit.
Peterson was admitted to a hospital that day. On the morning of April 1, he died.
Asked whether Peterson had died from COVID-19, Joe Moylan, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, initially said that "Peterson never displayed symptoms of COVID-19 while in the jail, and therefore was never tested."
The sheriff's office now declines to comment on his case, citing the ongoing litigation.
As of April 29, ten Weld County Jail detainees, two of whom have already been released, had tested positive for COVID-19. Since the pandemic began spreading in Colorado, four detainees have been transported to the hospital for COVID-19-related ailments. (Those numbers do not include Peterson.) Additionally, seventeen sheriff's deputies who work in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Weld County particularly hard. As of April 29, it had 1,704 confirmed cases, the third-highest total for a county in Colorado, as well as 93 deaths from COVID-19, also the third-highest total.
Even so, the county reopened for business earlier this week under a "Safer at Work" policy, and despite warnings from the county health department.
“The relative ineffectiveness of actions and interventions to control transmission in Weld County as evidenced by our ongoing high case rate raise serious concerns and considerations for staging reopening. Weld County has not met the threshold for reopening of a downward trajectory of cases. Any relaxation of restrictions should be cautiously staged given the risk of even wider spread of the disease.”