OGDEN — No one yet can say for sure whether 12 positive COVID-19 test results at the Weber County Jail in October were rare reinfection cases, or genetic leftovers from the summer outbreak.
The jail staff and medical personnel think they are the latter, Lt. Joshua Marigoni, Weber County Sheriff’s Office corrections spokesperson, said Friday.
The Utah Department of Health is comparing the genetic sequencing of the July and October tests of the first inmate who tested positive this fall, Oct. 10.
Department spokesperson Charla Haley said by email Thursday it may be two more weeks before the Utah Public Health Lab can process those tests.
Dr. Petronella Adomako, an infectious diseases specialist at McKay-Dee Hospital, said there are “a number of scenarios” possible in a situation like the jail’s mystery.
“When we use the term reinfection, what we are saying is that we can tell for sure a person had an infection previously that was completely resolved, then gets infected with a new infection with the same organism,” Adomako said in a phone interview.
She pointed to a case confirmed in Nevada in which researchers determined a man was infected in April and then again in June with different strains of the virus.
His symptoms were more severe the second time.
Marigoni said the inmate who tested positive Oct. 10 was asymptomatic in July but this time he has experienced a sore throat and flu-like symptoms.
The jail tested 38 inmates who may have been exposed to COVID-19 by contact with the Oct. 10 case, Marigoni said.
Of that group, 22 had tested positive during the summer outbreak and 11 of those tested positive again in October.
Those 11 inmates were asymptomatic both times, he said.
All of the newly tested positives have been placed in isolation.
“They’re all doing fine,” Marigoni said. “It’s under control. At this point, we consider that we are COVID-free.”
He said all of the inmates have been incarcerated since before the July outbreak.
The basic test confirms only the existence of virus and does not differentiate between an active infection and dead genetic material remaining in a person, Adomako said.
If an inmate had mild symptoms both times, “we can say either it’s unlikely to be a new infection or it’s possibly just residual virus,” Adomako said.
“On the other hand, if the symptoms were mild in June or July but he has not been tested between then and now, we cannot say for sure that it is the same virus,” she said. “We need more data to tell for sure.”
She said from the standpoint of managing the disease, the difference between a reinfection or the existence of old virus is not very meaningful.
If a person tests positive, he can be kept from spreading it to others, which helps the overall effort to minimize the virus’s spread.
But if a reinfection can be confirmed, “what that may tell us is that immunity may not be lifelong,” Adomako said.
Researchers also are studying the development of antibodies in people infected with COVID-19.
“Detecting antibodies tells us, OK, that individual has been exposed to that virus, and assuming for now, having that helps the body fight off the virus if it is exposed to it again,” Adomako said.
In the larger fight against COVID-19, “it is very, very important to mask up,” Adomako said. “You may be healthy one minute, and get the infection and you can die.”
She said COVID-19 patients put extra pressure on hospitals because the average stay is two weeks, compared to the average hospital stay of a few days.
“They are taking up our beds, and aside from not having enough beds, our staff is getting burned out,” Adomako said. “People really need to mask up.”
Utah reported a daily positive test total of 2,292 cases Friday.
Meanwhile, at the jail, COVID-19 continues to present legal issues.
Inmate Carl Courtney Jr. filed a suit against the county in U.S. District Court, alleging he suffered lung damage in the July outbreak, which resulted in more than 100 COVID-19 cases.
He alleged the jail failed to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines at that time and therefore violated his civil right to adequate care during incarceration.
Marigoni said he had not seen Courtney’s suit and so could not comment.