Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association says it was inevitable. There are confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a respiratory illness that is spreading across New York, in state prisons, including one that can be traced to Auburn.
The Cayuga County Health Department announced Sunday that an inmate who was previously housed at Auburn Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19. Hours earlier, the health department reported positive coronavirus test results for two local residents, the second and third confirmed cases in Cayuga County.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees New York's 52 prisons, said Monday that an infected inmate was transferred from Auburn to Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo on March 17.
After arriving at Wende, the inmate received a medical evaluation and was tested for the coronavirus. He was isolated after the test and is now hospitalized, according to DOCCS. A second inmate at Wende, movie producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, has tested positive for the coronavirus.
In addition to the prison case, the Cayuga County Health Department said Sunday that a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 30s tested positive for COVID-19. It's unknown how one of the women contracted the virus, but the other had contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the coronavirus.
Both women are in mandatory isolation. The health department is conducting investigations to determine if they had contact with others in the community. Anyone who came within six feet of the confirmed cases will be placed into mandatory quarantine, according to the department.
As of Sunday, there are three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cayuga County. The first was a man in his 30s who traveled to the county. The health department announced his positive test result on Wednesday.
"COVID-19 is killing people in New York state," county health department Director Kathleen Cuddy said in Sunday's press release. "This is not a drill. This is not a joke. At this time, social distancing is the only action we can perform to slow the spread of this virus amongst each other. There is no vaccine to prevent this and there currently is no treatment. It is imperative people comply with the recommendations to not congregate and do their best to keep a minimum of 6 feet from each other."
On Monday, the health department gave an update on the man who was the county's first confirmed case, saying his condition is improving and he is not exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. He will remain isolated until he is symptom-free for seven days and has two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests in a 24-hour period. One person who had contact with the man was placed in mandatory quarantine.
The health department said people who had contacts with the two women who tested positive have been identified and placed in mandatory quarantine. The women live in the county outside the city of Auburn. The towns they live in weren't revealed.
"Cayuga County is a close, tight-knit community and with the number of confirmed cases being so low, we are delicately balancing the privacy rights of the individuals while being mindful to provide the public with as much information as possible," the department wrote in a news release.
The confirmed cases of the coronavirus and people in mandatory quarantine are monitored by the health department.
As of Monday, there are 26 people in mandatory quarantine. Eighty-seven people have been tested for the coronavirus in Cayuga County. The department is awaiting results for 44 people, according to a news release. Anyone who is tested is asked to self-isolate until the results are known.
Social distancing, according to the health department, is important because of the limited availability of personal protective equipment for medical professionals and the strain on the healthcare system as the virus spreads. The department advised residents to limit trips to the grocery store and avoid gatherings at friends' homes.
Those who don't comply with social distancing guidelines are putting lives at risk, the department said.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. Most people who contract the virus will experience mild symptoms and recover. But seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems and people with underlying health conditions are at risk of serious illness.
Within the state's prisons, confirmed cases raise concerns about the health and safety of everyone in the corrections system — from the incarcerated individuals to the more than 19,000 corrections officers employed by DOCCS.
In a press release announcing the positive test, the Cayuga County Health Department said it would work with Auburn Correctional Facility to identify employees who had close contact — within six feet — with the inmate. The employees who had direct contact will be placed into mandatory quarantine.
The health department didn't reveal how many employees would be placed into quarantine. DOCCS declined to answer, citing security reasons. Powers estimated that up to 30 employees at Auburn and Wende correctional facilities may have been exposed to the inmate who tested positive for COVID-19.
Powers thinks the inmate's transfer from Auburn to Wende put more employees at risk. Last week, NYSCOPBA asked DOCCS to suspend non-essential inmate transportation due to the coronavirus outbreak. DOCCS said Monday that it has stopped transfers of incarcerated individuals "except for medical, disciplinary and other exigent circumstances to ensure the continued health and safety of our staff and incarcerated population."
"There's just a lot of contact," Powers said of transporting inmates from one prison to another. "And then to have him thrown on a van and moved to another facility just exposed other individuals."
The union is at odds with DOCCS, Powers explained, because there's not enough personal protective equipment for officers and other employees. He has heard from officers who say they are being denied masks.
According to DOCCS, equipment, supplies and other resources are available "to those impacted in correctional facilities during the spread of an infectious disease." The department also has an emergency supply inventory to respond to public health crises.
Powers' criticism of the department wasn't limited to the availability of personal protective equipment. He panned the decision to wait until mid-March to suspend inmate visitation at state prisons. DOCCS initially implemented screening to allow visitation to continue. More than a week later, the agency temporarily banned visitors from state correctional facilities.
Combined with the possible exposure to the virus through inmate transportation, Powers said it creates "a powder keg of contamination."
"My paramount concern here is the safety of our members so that they can safely do their jobs, provide the services that we have, keep our communities safe and then obviously not bring this home to their families," he added.
While DOCCS didn't address if any parts of Auburn Correctional Facility required cleaning after the inmate's diagnosis, the agency outlined its strategy for managing any COVID-19 outbreaks that occur in its prisons. Each correctional facility has an emergency control plan and the department has modified its pandemic flu protocol for the novel coronavirus. Medical staff is trained in infection control and has access to negative airflow isolation rooms.
DOCCS also highlighted other measures it's adopted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including temporarily suspending intake of inmates from county facilities, requiring non-security and other civilian employees to remain home for two weeks, additional screening of individuals transferred from local jails and the sharing of information to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Despite those measures, Powers believes more can be done to protect corrections officers.
"Our members are coming to work and they're doing the job to keep the community safe and the state safe and we're doing it with inadequate equipment," he said. "That needs to be remedied immediately.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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