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HARRISBURG — The state Department of Corrections defied federal guidelines and a doctor’s order last week, demanding that an officer who tested positive for COVID-19 come back to work at a Pennsylvania prison struggling to contain the spread, Spotlight PA has learned.
The correctional officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, tested positive in November and was scheduled to return Dec. 5, but his wife and children developed COVID-19 on Dec. 3 and he was still sick, according to a complaint obtained by the news organization.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say symptomatic people should stay home, and if someone they live with tests positive, the isolation period should reset. The officer’s doctor recommended that the officer wait to go back to work until Monday, Dec. 14.
The department, however, told the officer to return last Tuesday, adding that “just because an employee was still having symptoms or who was still symptomatic didn’t mean they couldn’t come back to work,” according to emails and the complaint.
The officer refused and filed the complaint through the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, the union that represents prison workers.
When asked about the case last Tuesday, the Department of Corrections declined to comment and deferred to its standard that people who test positive will be out of work for a minimum of 10 days but can return with symptoms as long as they have improved.
After multiple requests to explain the discrepancy with CDC guidelines about returning to work with symptoms and added isolation time for re-exposure, the department responded Friday afternoon, blaming the delay on a backlog of emails fielded by the medical team.
“If the employee is COVID negative, and someone who resides in their house becomes COVID positive, they could possibly be out for 24 days,” Maria Bivens, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email. But Bivens did not comment about returning with symptoms.
This divergence from medical and federal health officials is an example of what the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association said is continuous disregard by the Corrections Department for the lives at risk in prisons as new coronavirus cases in facilities explode. By the end of the first wave, positive cases remained low in the communities surrounding prisons. But now, as cases in those communities spike, the surge in positive tests in prisons is following suit. Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 10, 3,000 inmates tested positive, compared with fewer than 400 in the seven months prior.
Prisoners’ rights groups say that staff from the outside is the only way to explain such a devastating surge in positive coronavirus cases within the prisons. In an email Spotlight PA obtained that was sent by Department of Corrections management to prison staff at SCI Laurel Highlands, officials ultimately agreed, saying, “The prevalence of the virus is increasing in the community and therefore, it could be anticipated it would eventually enter the institution.”
Two DOC staff and 40 prisoners have died from the virus — the majority in the last 35 days. As of Dec. 10, 1,747 staff members have tested positive, a jump of more than 1,200 cases since Nov. 1, and at least 1,052 were out of work because of positive test results. But staffers are not required to report positive test results, and the number of infections is likely far higher.
The union’s vice president, John Eckenrode, said that at least one other corrections officer was also told to come back earlier than their doctor’s recommendation. Eckenrode said the stakes are getting higher as a rising number of corrections officers continue to test positive, forcing those who are able to work to be put on mandatory overtime and in jeopardizing circumstances.
“There are some institutions where our members are working double shifts multiple days a week, and they’re not getting their days off,” Eckenrode said. “They’re concerned for their own health and safety, concerned for the health and safety of the people that they love when they go home.”
Last Tuesday at SCI Greene, a prison in the southwest corner of the state, 83 staff members called out of work, and 50 of them were security guards who tested positive for the virus, according to administrative records gathered by the corrections union.
At Cambridge Springs, seven staff members had tested positive by mid-September, according to data gathered by Spotlight PA. Now, 122 staffers have tested positive, data show, with 26 currently out recovering and 58 others out of work awaiting test results.
Last week, the state approved $176,400 for the Corrections Department to hire more staff to help offset the number of people calling out of work.
In a news release last week discussing COVID-19 infections and the rise within the state’s facilities, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said that “we continue our battle against this dangerous invisible enemy. … That is why it is vital to continue our aggressive mitigation efforts. We cannot let our guard down.”
There is no scientific evidence that defines exactly how long individuals can spread the virus after they test positive, said Michael LeVasseur, lead epidemiologist for Drexel University’s COVID-19 testing.
He pointed to an October study published in the Journal of Infection that said spread is “highly unlikely” to occur after 10 days for people with mild to moderate symptoms. He said that there’s a chance someone like the officer is no longer contagious but that “it’s complicated,” and there’s also a chance the officer can still infect others.
“I’m in public health, so I’m always going to advocate for a more-safe-than-sorry approach,” he said. “And if it’s a matter of a few days, just do the extra days.”