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Dubuque County had a record-breaking increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday as officials announced that 24 jail inmates tested positive for the virus.

A total of 35 new cases were reported in the county from 5 p.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Tuesday, bringing the county's total to 454.

The majority of that increase was the outbreak in Dubuque County Jail. Samples were taken from all inmates and staff Friday night after one inmate tested positive, according to the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department.

Department officials were notified Tuesday that 24 of those samples — all from inmates — were positive for COVID-19. No jail staff has tested positive at this time.

“The affected inmates are being placed in medical segregation and will be tended to by jail nursing staff,” a press release states.

Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

Jail outbreak

Kennedy told Dubuque County supervisors on Monday to expect an increase of COVID-19 cases among inmates. The inmate who first tested positive was in a larger housing unit, which means more people were exposed, Kennedy said.

Law enforcement officials have been working to decrease the number of inmates in the jail in an effort to avoid an outbreak. Efforts have included issuing citations or summonses in lieu of some arrests and releasing some inmates with GPS monitoring.

Officials brought the jail population down to about 100 inmates from the typical 190.

Last month, Kennedy proposed walling off the connection between two floors of existing 49-person cell pods to cut the capacity of each in half. Kennedy told supervisors this week that COVID-19 exposure could have been reduced if the project had already been completed, prompting supervisors to express their intent to back the proposal.

Other Iowa jails have reported COVID-19 outbreaks among inmates during the pandemic. The Des Moines Register reported last month that 89 inmates and nine staff members at Polk County Jail had tested positive as of May 22.

It was not immediately clear whether the Dubuque County Jail outbreak will affect plans to resume in-person inmate visits and fingerprinting appointments July 1.

Local increase

The spike in Dubuque County cases also could be related to a delay in test processing alerts at State Hygienic Lab over the weekend, said Patrice Lambert, executive director of Dubuque County Health Department.

She said health department officials also questioned why there was such a large uptick in cases after seeing low numbers in recent days. They were told the delay in notifications might be part of the reason, she said.

Since the state started reporting real-time COVID-19 cases and test results on May 19, the TH has been reporting 24-hour comparisons of the numbers twice daily — once at 11 a.m. and once at 5 p.m. The previous 24-hour high since the TH started reporting in this manner was 14 new cases, which was recorded on Friday.

When the state was reporting COVID-19 numbers once per day, Dubuque County’s one-day record was 32 cases.

The number of COVID-19 tests for the county also jumped by 259 from 5 p.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Tuesday, to more than 7,900 tests of Dubuque County residents.

Accessibility to COVID-19 tests is currently increasing, Lambert said, including the Test Iowa clinic that opened in Dubuque on Monday. A mobile testing site that operated in Platteville, Wis., last week did not require people receiving tests to be Wisconsin residents, she added.

“We can only expect to see an increase in tests,” Lambert said. “But how many positive tests, we have no idea.”

As of Monday, she said, about 5.5% of Dubuque County’s COVID-19 tests have been positive.

County officials continue encouraging residents to remain vigilant in COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home when ill and washing hands well.

“Even though the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is not mandating masks, we are still recommending that you wear a mask,” Lambert said. “Even as our county and state has opened up again, we cannot let our guard down with mitigation.”