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PEF brings DOCCS members info, answers to questions

By SHERRY HALBROOK

State DOCCS Deputy Commissioner Dan Martuscello

Lots of useful information was shared with PEF members working in the state correctional system at a webinar version of a town hall that PEF provided December 15.  State DOCCS Deputy Commissioner Dan Martuscello was invited to update the members on what’s happening throughout the system as the agency works to protect the health and safety of both employees and inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Later, PEF leaders and staff gave members their own update s advice on dealing with workplace issues.

It was one of many outreach efforts the union is making to share information and hear from members at various worksites and agencies.

The union invited members to submit their questions and concerns in advance, which were then shared (without the names of the members who submitted them) with Martuscello a few days before the meeting.  He said he tried to cover the issues they raised during his remarks.

Martuscello thanked PEF for giving him this opportunity to speak directly to members and he had high praise for the tremendous service they are providing in such challenging times.

“I just can’t say enough about the work you are doing. We are able to continue fulfilling our mission because of the dedication you have to your jobs,” Martuscello said.  He cited the recent example of a vigilant parole officer who spotted an escaped inmate walking down the road, which led to the apprehension and return of that individual.

Martuscello said DOCCS operations look “much different today than 11 months ago, with the inmate population at 34,996, which is down by 9,002 since November 2019, and is now the lowest since 1985.  To reduce population density and infection risk, he said the system has released 3,500 inmates.

The deputy commissioner said the department has benefitted from the many lessons it learned from dealing with previous epidemics such as  tuberculosis, AIDS and HIV, as well as many others. He also reviewed the way correctional facilities are testing, social distancing and segregating infected inmates, and those who have likely been exposed. The department does its own contact tracing within facilities, and works with county health departments that trace contacts to people outside the facilities.

The department has begun a pilot program for more intensive testing at one facility that it hopes to extend to every facility starting December 21.

System wide, the testing is showing an average positivity rate of 2.76 percent, Martuscello reported, but he added that two facilities have had much higher positive rates.  Elmira CF has had 605 people test positive for a rate of 39.71 percent, and Greene CF has had 162 people who tested positive, resulting in a rate of 8.57 percent.  If you exclude those two facilities from the statewide average positivity rate, he said, it drops from 2.76 percent all the way down to just 0.85 percent.

DOCCS is posting the data online at 3 p.m. every day Tuesdays through Saturdays. The figures given each day are for the previous day.  Martuscello said two PEF members are the ones “crunching the data” to provide these reports.

So far, 2,296 DOCCS employees have tested positive, and 1,107 have recovered. Currently 590 staff are sick with COVID-19 and six others have died, including an imam.

Regarding the inmate population, Martuscello said 2,136 have tested positive, 1,781 of them have recovered, 337 are sick and 18 have died.  He added that two of those also had cancer and may have signed requests not to be resuscitated.

In addition, 151 parolees have tested positive for the virus and four of them have died.

“As we identify people who were exposed, they are notified and quarantined,” Martuscello said, adding that he was possibly exposed and had to isolate for 14 days.  DOCCS announced March 11 that employees who test positive for COVID-19 may have 14 calendar days/10 workdays of paid leave to quarantine with no charge to their accrued leave.

Martuscello stressed several times that DOCCS has developed what it calls a “three-legged stool” approach to dealing with the pandemic that involves:

  1. Recognizing symptoms and testing;
  2. Isolating those who are sick and housing those who are positive but asymptomatic with or near others who are also positive but asymptomatic; and
  3. Working out a plan at each facility to allow for showering and eating without mixing those who test positive with other inmates, and finding ways to segregate infected individuals’ cells. It may not be an entire cell block or unit.

This approach must be adapted to work well in each facility, Martuscello said.  He encouraged staff to watch online programs for information that is regularly updated.  He said DOCCS was one of the first state departments or agencies to allow staff to come to work wearing their own masks and it now requires inmates to wear masks in certain areas.  Mask wearing is now mandatory for employees, as well as hand washing and other cleaning protocols. The deputy commissioner noted that DOCCS manufactures sanitizer at three facilities and has distributed 6 million bottles of hand sanitizer.  The department also provides posters and other materials to encourage best practices for keeping everyone safe.

Martuscello said DOCCS is trying to reduce exposures between employees and inmates, visitors and inmates and staff, and parole officers and parolees by reducing face-to-face meetings.  He said DOCCS knows that it’s important to help inmates maintain links with their family members, so it is still allowing visits, but reducing them by 50 percent in most areas.  And it is keying restrictions on contact between inmates and visitors to the regional COVID-level designations.  In red zone areas, no visits are allowed, and it is also suspending visits at facilities with heightened or mounting levels of infection.

“Yesterday, we suspended intakes and we are doing a slow down of programs and reducing their capacity by 50 percent,” he said. “We are trying to minimize the need for people to go into the housing units, but we still have to interact with incarcerated people.”

DOCCS is stepping up communication between its top and lower level managers and also with the unions and workers.

Martuscello asked PEF members to share the information he was providing, but also to remember that it is fluid and can change very quickly.

“We’re giving you the information, and you make suggestions,” he said. “Please look out for each other.  We can’t do it without you.”

PEF President Wayne Spence thanked Martuscello, who then left the webinar.

PEF Director of Health and Safety Geraldine Stella told members to use a fillable tracking form to track their potential exposures, which don’t have to be 15 continuous minutes with someone who tests positive for the virus.  The CDC has decided it can be a series of briefer exposures that add up to 15 minutes. (COVID Tracking Form)

“Assume everyone is infected and take every precaution,” she advised.  People who test positive for the virus often can’t remember all of the people with whom they have had contact, so having your own record of people you have been near, when and for how long can be very helpful.

“If you become ill, you may be covered by Workers Compensation,” Stella said, and those records would be very helpful in showing that you were likely infected on the job.

Steve Drake, PEF labor-management chair at DOCCS, told members who think they have been overlooked by contact tracers to “Ask your immediate supervisor for help.  Notify your unit chief.”

PEF Field Services Director Katie Vorwald said members who must isolate or quarantine because of COVID should not have to charge their accruals for the 10 working days they miss.  If they find that DOCCS is charging their accruals for that time, they should immediately notify their PEF field representative so they can file a grievance in time.

“We’re filing a lot of grievances, but it’s a tight timeframe,” Vorwald said.

Drake said he is trying to work out an agreement with management to resolve this issue. “We’re having a final wrap-up call on that soon.”

Vorwald also advised any members who are denied their rights to emergency leave to care for a sick family member under the Family Medical Leave Act to contact their PEF field representative right away so they file a grievance.

The member who chairs an L-M subcommittee on medical issues said he is extremely disappointed that DOCCS nurses are not among the very first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Stella said the priority for vaccinations was set at the federal level and was based on giving the highest priority to hospitals with the greatest levels of COVID patients.  Correctional facilities are considered “congregate” populations and are in the next top priority group.

Spence stated, “I’m on record to say we (PEF) are onboard with voluntary vaccinations.  We will fight any (unilateral) mandatory vaccination (policy).  You need to have a conversation with the union for mandatory vaccinations.”

The president added that he has heard a number of concerns from members in PEF Region 6 (Utica area) and he said they may reach out to PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio as well as their field rep for help.