Corrections union urges Pa. to vaccinate staff amid prison outbreak
"We've been working this pandemic in institutions that are super spreaders. It's time to prioritize corrections," a rep said
By Ivey DeJesus
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. — Amid a COVID-19 outbreak at a Pennsylvania prison, the union representing about the state’s corrections officers workers is urging the state to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination program for prison staff.
John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, on Thursday said it was time for the state to move corrections workers to the front of the line, along with teachers, but also smokers and individuals with other health risks. The union represents 11,000 members, including maintenance and food services staff.
“We’ve been working this pandemic in institutions that are super spreaders,” Eckenrode said. “It’s time to prioritize corrections employees to be vaccinated.”
Eckenrode is particularly troubled in the wake of the reports of a COVID-19 outbreak at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill.
State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel last week confirmed with ABC-27 the outbreak at the prison in Lower Allen Township, including 208 COVID-positive cases. In the span of three days last week, SCI-Camp Hill’s infection tally shot up to nearly 400, the union said.
PennLive made repeated attempts to speak with officials at the corrections department but calls were not returned.
The latest tally of COVID-19 cases by ZIP code show that Camp Hill ZIP code 17011 leads all Pennsylvania ZIP codes in new cases this week, with 357 reported new cases.
Eckenrode said the state corrections system needs a consistent plan to vaccinate staff.
“This could be done in only a few short days if officers were a priority,” he said. “Instead, they are overworked, exhausted and are working massive amounts of overtime due to COVID-19 illnesses. The mental anguish of passing the virus from prisons to their loved ones also takes a tremendous toll. It’s time for this administration to use common sense in its vaccination plan.”
Eckenrode said a DOC official informed the union that that a full roll out of vaccines to prison staff should be fully functional by May.
“That’s the only word I have gotten from someone with the state of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago, the union has seen 2,000 members test positive for the coronavirus, and has lost four members to the virus.
According to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, 116 prison inmates in Pennsylvania have died since the start of the pandemic, along with 10 staff members.
Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, supports the call from the union to get priority for vaccination.
“They are right in that correctional staff need to be prioritized just as staff in other in congregant settings such as hospitals and nursing homes,” she said. “It’s the same issues. These are staff working in congregant settings where the virus spreads like wildfire.”
Recently, another Pennsylvania prison, SCI Forest, had a similar outbreak that temporarily catapulted the county to the highest per capita outbreak in the country.
“It’s not a ticking time bomb,” Shubik-Richards said. “It’s an explosion that is happening.”
Shubik-Richards said she is concerned about reports showing that a substantial number of corrections staff do not want to get vaccinated.
“That’s very worrisome,” she said.
Reports out of Cambria County, for instance, show that two-thirds of corrections staff declined to be vaccinated.
Shubik-Richards stressed the importance beyond the prison setting.
“If you are in a community with a prison, they are a danger to you,” she said. “They are a serious vector for amplifying the virus spread. Regardless of whether you care about the lives of people who are in custody, even if you don’t, even if you just care about people on the street, you really need to care about correctional staff being vaccinated.”
Camp Hill inmates are being offered a $25 incentive to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The monetary incentive is not currently being offered to staff.
The state corrections department has rolled out vaccine programs at three facilities.
(c)2021 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)