The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reversed its stance on Wednesday and will allow correction officers and staff to wear masks to protect against the coronavirus while working inside state prisons.
Employees will be permitted to wear either an N95 respirator or surgical mask while on duty, according to DOCCS. The policy, which is effective immediately, also applies to parole officers.
Incarcerated individuals who are quarantined will be issued a surgical mask, according to DOCCS.
Before Wednesday's announcement, the agency cited a directive that prohibits employees from wearing masks "unless medically necessary for the job and the area they work in." But with the easing of those restrictions, the department explained it won't oppose the use of masks "if there is a chance that they may slow or even stop the spread of this virus from entering our facilities."
There are reports of correction officers and inmates testing positive for COVID-19, although DOCCS, citing security concerns, hasn't confirmed the number of cases or how many employees are in quarantine.
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing state correction officers, said Monday that at least 56 officers and sergeants have tested positive for COVID-19. The union's president, Michael Powers, also has the virus.
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Last week, a former Auburn Correctional Facility inmate tested positive for the virus. That information was relayed to the Cayuga County Health Department, which conducted an investigation to determine who was in direct contact with the inmate.
Kathleen Cuddy, public health director of the Cayuga County Health Department, said Tuesday that 17 Auburn prison employees were in mandatory quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus. They were released from quarantine on Wednesday.
With the coronavirus outbreak worsening in New York, NYSCOPBA has been urging DOCCS to provide employees with personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks.
"We are satisfied that they finally recognized the importance that all front-line personnel need to protect themselves during this crisis," NYSCOPBA said in a statement. The union added that it's in the process of buying personal protective equipment for its members.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.