Internal emails: Inmate had fevers before dying of COVID-19; lawsuit suggests second COVID-19 death

Problem Solvers

WELD COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — An internal email from a Weld County health services administrator reveals an inmate who died of COVID-19 two days after being released from jail suffered from a fever even though a jail spokesperson publicly said the inmate never displayed symptoms of COVID-19 while he was incarcerated.

“He was running fevers, but that is the only covid symptom,” wrote Dustin Owens, the health services administrator at the Weld County North Jail Complex, in an April 14, 2020 email to Matthew Turner, a jail captain. Turner was inquiring about the inmate’s medical history two weeks after the inmate passed away.  

Owens wrote that Charles Peterson, the 78-year-old man who died on April 1, 2020, also suffered from an acute urinary tract infection and had cardiac issues including a history of a stroke and heart attack and high blood pressure and cholesterol at the time of his fevers.

“I should make mention he was grossly non complaint (sic) with his medications while he was here,” Owens wrote. “However, there was no other covid symptoms noted in his chart.”

A Weld County Jail spokesperson, Joe Moylan, previously told the FOX31 Problem Solvers that Peterson did not show COVID-19 symptoms while he was in jail custody.

“Peterson never displayed symptoms of COVID-19 while in the jail and was therefore never tested.  We’re not exactly sure how his death was and continues to be attributed to the jail,” Moylan said in mid-May.

Meanwhile, in an April 1, 2020 email to Mark Wallace, the director of Weld County’s Department of Public Health and Environment, Sheriff Reams suggested Peterson’s illness might’ve been the cause of the jail’s outbreak.

This inmate “seems like a very likely source of how COVID-19 may have been introduced into the facility,” he said.

Wallace agreed that Peterson “could certainly have been someone who brought it into the jail.”

Sheriff Reams said his staff would have treated Peterson differently if they had known he was ill with the novel coronavirus. “These aren’t easy cases to deal with especially if someone has pre-existing medical conditions,” he told the FOX31 Problem Solvers.

“If they had evidence that (Peterson) had a fever, that alone is pretty strong evidence of someone who needs to be tested for COVID-19 when you’re talking especially about an older person…in a jail, a highly populated facility.  That should be a huge red flag,” said David Maxted, an attorney who coordinated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado to bring a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Reams, alleging he failed to provide enough protection for medically vulnerable inmates like Peterson.

Reams filed court paperwork last week suggesting he was complying with a judge’s order to develop better ways to protect at-risk inmates, but attorneys representing the plaintiffs said the sheriff is still not doing enough. 

Their latest filing insists that last week’s death of an inmate – in his own jail cell – is also linked to COVID-19.  “The risk to the plaintiff class is real and extreme,” the court paperwork says.

An ACLU attorney, Arielle Herzberg declared, under penalty of perjury, that inmate Anthony Griego told her he was admitted to the hospital on March 21, 2020, where he discovered he had tested positive for COVID19.

“He told me that at the hospital, he was put on a ventilator for a week or more.  He also told me put (sic) into a medically induced coma for four or five days,” she wrote.  “Mr. Griego told me that the nurse and doctors told Mr. Griego that he was lucky to survive because of how sick he was when he got there.”

Moylan told the FOX31 Problem Solvers that he Weld County Sheriff’s Office could not confirm Griego’s cause of death. 

“We likely won’t have the autopsy report – including a cause and manner of death – for several weeks,” he said.  “With that said, neither I nor the sheriff’s office would be able to comment about Griego’s personal health information, the medical care he received while in the jail nor his cause of death because of potential HIPAA concerns,” he said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Griego’s death is also under investigation by the 19th Judicial District’s Critical Incident Response Team.

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