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Coronavirus In Ohio: Prison Health Care Union Demands Better PPE, Staffing Policies

At Pickaway Correctional Institution, 110 staff members and more than 1,400 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
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At Pickaway Correctional Institution, 110 staff members and more than 1,400 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

A union that represents health care workers in Ohio’s correctional facilities is demanding additional personal protective equipment and staffing policy changes due to what they call “an unacceptable level of risk” during the ongoing pandemic.

SEIU District 1199 represents nurses, social workers, and psychologists working in Ohio’s prisons. In a letter this week, executive vice president Josh Norris wrote that some workers are not being provided N-95 respirators, which are the most effective masks for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“[There’s a] need for more testing, a need for more personal protective equipment and a need for more quarantine or isolation based on the results of those tests,” he says.

The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which oversees some of the SEIU 1199 workers, says it's following the CDC's guidelines on PPE for correctional facilities. Both that department and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction say they are following Ohio Department of Health’s coronavirus prevention guidelines.

As of Thursday, 4,213 inmates and 876 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state prison system. ODRC also reports that 88 inmates and five employees have died.

Norris doesn’t feel like the current precautions are enough.

“I applauded Corrections for the initial steps that they took—taking people’s temperatures, encouraging people to stay home if they had symptoms, using their sick leave and things like that,” Norris says. “But once it got to the point where it leapt out of control at an institution, it seemed like all bets were off and Corrections just gave up—quit even trying.”

The other major demand in SEIU 1199’s letter is to allow Recovery Service employees to continue to work from home. Those employees have been ordered to return to prison facilities, the letter says.

“The logic defies me," Norris says. "Why would you send a group of individuals home, have them complete their work from home when an institution was in code yellow and didn’t have any confirmed cases, and then bring them back to the institution when every single institution in the entire state is code red and has confirmed cases either amongst inmates or staff? It doesn’t make sense.”

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.