CHICAGO (CBS) — The legal debate over releasing detainees from the Cook County Jail continued Tuesday as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to soar. But does releasing detainees who have been living in the virus cluster put the community at risk?

There are at least 238  people with COVID-19 inside the jail, and medical experts say allowing this cluster to grow is not the right answer. But the protocols for releasing detainees back into the outside world will be crucial.

According to the New York Times’ analysis of coronavirus data, Cook County is home to the single largest cluster of cases in the United States, more than doubling the 129 cases at the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, the country’s first major outbreak.

Hundreds of detainees have been released due to COVID-19 concerns, and now a class-action lawsuit is asking the Cook County Sheriff to release anyone in custody with a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age or medical history.

But the bigger question is what happens if and when they are released into the public? Do they pose a health risk?

“I understand people’s fear from that standpoint, but I think the ongoing outbreak itself puts the community at risk,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director for infection prevention at UI Health.

She says diffusing this infection inside the jail is important.

“Trying to separate within a jail setting is very difficult and puts people at risk that are still there, puts the staff at risk, and the potential for increased cases,” she said when asked if the best course could be keeping detainees in the jail.

And the Cook County Sheriff’s Department says if the detainee is COVID-19 positive or symptomatic they work with Illinois and Cook County health departments to find them an appropriate place to quarantine and in some instances find alternative temporary housing.

An area with temporary tents is another offsite quarantine spot with 500 beds.

The sheriff’s office said it is moving detainees from double cells to single cells and consulting with sanitation and infectious disease experts. For detainees who are released but have not tested positive, they have their temperature taken and go through the CDC -approved screening. They do not get a COVID-19 test but are encouraged to self quarantine.

Cermak Health, the hospital that treats the detainees, has begun training staff on how to deploy their own tests. They should be up and running this week, and it will be up to hospital staff as to who is tested.

Megan Hickey