Mich. DOC eases rules for COVID-positive COs to go back to work

COs at prisons operating under "contingency" staffing can now return to work five days after testing positive, even if still experiencing mild symptoms


By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
        
LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan Department of Corrections has designated 10 state prisons as having staffing levels so low that officers at those prisons can return to work five days after testing positive for COVID-19, even if they are still experiencing mild symptoms, a spokesman said Tuesday.

But the department is resisting calls to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deploy Michigan National Guard members to ease a staffing crunch that spokesman Chris Gautz said has reached "critical" levels as the omicron variant has been spreading rapidly.

Gautz said department leadership, in consultation with the department's chief medical officer, on Friday designated the following prisons to operate under "contingency" staffing, which eases rules for COVID-positive employees to return to work:

A sign at the Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.
A sign at the Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (MLive.com/J. Scott Park)
  • Central Michigan Correctional Facility in St. Louis
  • Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center near Jackson
  • G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson
  • Gus Harrison Correctional Facility near Adrian
  • Kinross Correctional Facility near Kincheloe
  • Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township
  • Marquette Branch Prison in Marquette
  • Michigan Reformatory in Ionia
  • Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson
  • Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia

At those prisons, which represent more than one-third of the prisons in the state, staff can return to work five days after testing positive if they are asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms that are improving, including a temperature of 100.4 or lower, nasal congestion, a "non-productive cough," fatigue, sore throat, headache, and loss of the sense of taste or smell, Gautz said.

However, those officers must wear a KN95 mask when they return to work, according to a memo sent Friday to prison employees. Other officers, as well as prisoners, are only required to wear cloth masks, though the department is working on a plan to upgrade masks for all officers and prisoners, he said.

At the state's other 18 prisons, staff who test positive for COVID-19 can return to work after seven days — down from 10 — provided they can produce a negative COVID test within 48 hours of returning to work, according to a memo sent Friday to prison employees.

The memo said the rules for returning to prison work are consistent with recently revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which also have been adopted by many hospitals experiencing severe staffing shortages.

Still, "it's definitely a concern," said Lois Pullano, executive director of Lansing-based Citizens for Prison Reform.

As of last Wednesday, there were 1,930 active COVID-19 cases among the state's roughly 32,000 prisoners, according to the department's website. The number of corrections officers off work for reasons related to the coronavirus was not immediately available.

Rather than making it easier for sick officers to return to work, "I believe a better option is utilizing members of the Michigan National Guard to relieve the staff shortage," Pullano said. "Other states have utilized their National Guard at a much greater level and it has been very helpful."

Gautz said the Corrections Department has used Michigan National Guard members to assist with COVID testing, to give vaccinations and booster shots, and to help with other activities related to health care.

Currently, 23 members of the Michigan National Guard are deployed at two prisons, he said.

The department does not see the need to use troops in the role of corrections officers, despite critical staff shortages at some facilities, he said.

"There are times where it can hit very critical levels, but typically that doesn't last very long," he said.

Instead, the department is drawing on other prison staff in a wide range of jobs inside and outside facilities who have previously worked as corrections officers and can volunteer for updated training so they can fill that role again temporarily and receive overtime pay, he said.

So far, 375 employees have been approved to take part in the officer recertification program, he said.

Those volunteers have taken on 1,123 shifts that otherwise would have resulted in mandatory overtime for corrections officers, he said.

Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are among the states where National Guard members have been deployed inside prisons in security-related roles, according to reports in various media outlets.

Pullano said using the National Guard in Michigan could free up other staff for roles such as programming. Some prisoners are having their paroles delayed because they need to complete one program to meet parole requirements and that class is not currently being offered because of the pandemic, she said.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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