After 17 youths test positive for virus, juvenile lockups to begin mass testing

Cars are parked in front of the entrance to the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in this Friday, Jan. 22, 2016 file photo in Edinburg. (Nathan Lambrecht | The Monitor)

By Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune

After 17 young people tested positive for the coronavirus inside Texas’ state-run juvenile lockups, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department said Wednesday it will test all detainees and staff.

The agency will conduct mass testing at its five secure lockups, totaling about 700 young detainees and 1,700 employees, according to a news release. TJJD will use the same oral tests the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has used to conduct more than 100,000 tests on adult prisoners. The population at state juvenile lockups has been shrinking for years as regular reports of physical and sexual abuse have pushed officials to keep less youth in them.

Until June, TJJD had largely eluded reported cases of the virus that was first deemed a Texas emergency in March. Only two employees tested positive in April and May, according to agency news releases. But last month, 28 more employees and the 17 detainees also tested positive for the virus at four of the state’s juvenile lockups. Another four young people had tested positive at TJJD halfway houses, the agency said in a Tuesday release.

The youth were all being treated at the lockups, TJJD said in a Tuesday news release. One detention officer has died. Sean Wilson, 43, worked at the Giddings State School and died on June 28 after testing positive for the virus the week before.

On Tuesday, TJJD said it had tested less than 300 of its detainees for the virus. The mass testing, set to be completed next week, will be administered with help of TDCJ employees, the agency said. Though the tests are marketed as self-administered, TJJD said in its release staff will be administering the twenty-second mouth swabs.

In May, TDCJ began implementing mass testing at dozens of its infected prisons as the coronavirus quickly spread among inmates. The department began using the oral, self-administered tests from a new California company, Curative, at $150 a pop. The state of Texas bought 300,000 of the tests for $45 million, according to a Texas Department of Emergency Management purchase order.

TDEM spokesperson Seth Christensen said Wednesday that TJJD will be using the Curative tests as well, and that Texas had purchased more tests beyond the 300,000 originally bought in May. The state is transitioning to using the test for military mobile testing teams as well, he said.

“I am grateful for the partnership with the State of Texas and TDCJ, which will allow our agency to conduct our first mass-testing program,” TJJD Executive Director Camille Cain said in Wednesday’s release. “As we see an increase in COVID-19 cases at our facilities, the best way to protect our youth and our employees is to fully understand the situation and respond accordingly.”