MALONE –– A group of health care providers at the Alice Hyde Medical Center has criticized the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for what they say is a slow and inadequate response to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic.
“As the health care providers for this community, we implore the State of New York and the Department of Corrections to immediately develop a plan to provide care for its inmates,” physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants wrote in a letter to DOCCS Commissioner Cynthia Brann and DOCCS Health Commissioner John Morley. “We neither have the facilities, the staff, nor the transport capability to deal with a major outbreak of the virus in the prisons which appears inevitable.
“Our community deserves better!” DOCCS officials said they were disappointed with the medical professionals’ reaction to the agency’s handling of the virus.
The letter noted that DOCCS delayed ending inmate visitation until just two weeks ago, after the virus had established itself in the New York City where many of the visitors came from. The department also has “limited or no screening of workers for signs of the virus, inadequate cleaning in the prison, allow[s] inmates to congregate (facilitated by the “Dormitory” environment) and most of all, until a couple of days ago, transferring inmates from one prison to the next, many of whom are sick.”
“All of these issues substantially increase the risk of spreading the virus,” the letter continues.
Health care workers met with DOCCS representatives on Thursday about their concerns and came away from that meeting disappointed, the letter said.
“We were given no assurance that those wards of the State would be adequately cared for by the State, the letter states. “The expectation is that our small health facility will be ground zero for up to 5,000 inmates who in our opinion, have been irresponsibly managed by the Department of Corrections. The likelihood of a major outbreak of the Coronavirus in these prisons is very high. This spells potential disaster for our hospital, its staff and our community.”
Dr. William Latreille, director of primary care at Alice Hyde, stressed that the letter is not the official position of the University of Vermont Health System, which operates Alice Hyde, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh and several other medical facilities in northern New York and Vermont. The letter is from those on the front lines of providing medical care in the community –– including to prison inmates –– and reflects their individual concerns, he said.
DOCCS noted that it has handled major disease outbreaks in the past, including tuberculosis, AIDS, and hepatitis C, and its facilities across the state have medical staff specially trained in infection control. The department also has negative air flow isolation rooms and regional medical units and each prison has an emergency control plan that is regularly reviewed and is designed to meet the facility’s needs, including preparedness measures, response mechanisms and short- and long-term recovery provisions.
The agency also has been conducting table top exercises and has plans for each facility to implement should there be significant staff absences.
Medical personnel are not the only ones voicing concerns about the possible spread of the virus within state prisons, and the likelihood it could be carried into the community by people working in the prisons.
“North Country Correctional Officers and their families are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus crisis, and the state has been slow to act on their concerns in implementing precautionary measures to mitigate the spread,” U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R. Schuylerville, said in a statement issued Monday. “My office asked for prisons to stop prisoner transfers and visits weeks ago, and New York was too slow in implementing those changes.
DOCCS has said it has suspended a majority of its internal transfers, but that those already underway were allowed to continue. Transfers also continue for medical and disciplinary moves.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said last week that DOCCS had assured him all but “very necessary transfers” had ceased. Those necessary transfers include those made for medical and mental health reasons and “extreme circumstances,” said Jones, a former corrections officer.
Still, Jones said, DOCCS was slow in reacting to the calls to end transfers, despite the apparent risk not only to inmates but to the corrections officers and the community at large.
All intake from local jails, including New York City’s Rikers Island, was suspended the week of March 16.
Sen. Betty Little, R. Queensbury, said Monday that she had been told by DOCCS that 1,100 parole violators, most of whom were being held in county jails, were being released rather than transferred to state prisons. The department is also looking into releasing elderly inmates and those who have demonstrated good behavior, she said.
Stefanik also criticized DOCCS for its continuing failure to sufficient provide personal protective equipment for corrections officers and its refusal to allow COs to bring their such equipment.
“I am calling for an immediate prioritization of personal protective equipment for correctional officers, and enhanced information sharing between both federal and state prisons and county public health offices for the safety and health of corrections officers and our entire North Country community,” Stefanik said. “Our correctional officers and prison officials do important work that must continue during the COVID-19 crisis, and the lack of PPE is unacceptable. As it stands right now, Correctional Officers are not allowed to bring their own PPE from home.”
DOCCS last week acknowledged that offices were not allowed to bring their own PPE into prisons and that if personal protective equipment is medically necessary, it is issued by the facility. That determination is made based on the type of work the officers perform and where they are working.
Little said she could see no reason why corrections officers could not bring their own masks. “It can’t hurt; it can only help,” she said, noting the widespread use of masks in countries such as South Korea and Japan is credited with helping contain the virus.
Jones also called for DOCCS to allow officers to use their own masks and personal protection equipment, saying the state should do everything it can to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“I believe they should be allowed to wear masks and personal protection equipment in this unprecedented time,” Jones said Monday. “I don’t know why this is such a fight.”
DOCCS has enhanced its cleaning and sanitizing measures and issued hand sanitizer for all staff and inmates to use.
Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association said Monday that more than 50 officers throughout the state –– including him –– have tested positive for the virus. One officer is hospitalized and requires a ventilator, he said.
DOCCS pegged the number closer to 40.
Powers, who said he had been working in close contact with corrections officers throughout the state, has been self-quarantining the past several days.
“The news reaffirms the Union’s position that the State, including the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH), must take immediate action to further prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our state correctional and mental health facilities,” the union said in a statement.
Powers joined those calling for corrections officers to be allowed to wear protective gear while working.
“If the State cannot pay for it, then allow NYSCOPBA to help,” Powers said in a statement. “Each day that our members are prohibited from wearing protective equipment, they are exposed to being infected and spreading the virus inside and outside of the facilities.
Powers, in his statement, voiced frustration that “too much time” has passed while state officials review the union’s request to have corrections staffers wear masks and other personal protection equipment on the job.
“Every day we are discovering more positive tests for COVID-19,” Powers said. “The State must act now before it is too late, and we’re faced with a bigger crisis inside the state’s prison and mental health systems.”
At least one inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora has tested positive for the virus, according to state officials. No positive tests have been reported among the inmates in the three state prisons in Malone.