Officials: Delayed state response fueled NY prison COVID-19 outbreak

The outbreak has spread into surrounding communities since it was first detected earlier this month


By Bethany Bump
Times Union

CATSKILL, N.Y. — Greene County officials say a coronavirus outbreak at the local state prison could have been prevented and are calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to take immediate, swift action to help curb its spread.

The outbreak, which has impacted at least 100 inmates and 14 employees of the Greene Correctional Facility, has spread into surrounding communities since it was first detected earlier this month — resulting in the closure of the Greenville Elementary School and an outbreak at an assisted living facility in Ghent, public health officials say.

In addition, because inmate infections are counted toward the county's infection rate, movie theaters and event venues in Greene County will be unable to reopen as scheduled Friday, County Administrator Shaun Groden said.

"The 100 inmates that are in Greene are not going to be going to the movies this Saturday, yet that is being held against us and our businesses and our economy," he said. "That is wrong."

Groden and the county Legislature held a news conference Wednesday to air concerns over the state's response and issued a "desperate plea" for the state to act aggressively in quelling the outbreak before it overruns the rural public health system. They also criticized the state for failing to act proactively when it comes to coronavirus in prisons and jails.

'The ship has sailed'

At the first sign of the outbreak, county officials say they reached out to Greene Correctional to offer an on-site testing clinic for staff Oct. 13, but were rebuffed. Six days later, after pressure from the state Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision agreed to allow on-site staff testing this past Monday, the county said (DOCCS denies that it rejected the county's initial offer).

"Six days and too many additional cases later," said Greene County Legislature Chair Patrick Linger. "This delayed response is not acceptable. The ship has sailed from Greene Correctional, unfortunately by design. However, there are 52 other facilities that have the same failed policies in effect and present significant statewide risks."

Laura Churchill, deputy director of public health for the county, said at least 14 employees at the facility have confirmed infections.

One of them, a corrections officer, spread it to their child who attends Greenville Elementary. At least three cases have since been detected at the school, with an additional case confirmed at the middle school. On Monday, the district announced it would be closing the elementary school until at least Oct. 29 in response to the cases.

There is potential for spread beyond Greene County, officials noted. Employees of the facility live in Albany, Rensselaer and Schoharie counties, as well, they said.

"Those staff members go home at night, they have children, those children go to school... so this is not just a Greene issue, this is across the state," Groden said.

Linger said DOCCS has been reluctant to share information that could assist the county with contact tracing — frustrating the local health department's ability to isolate and quarantine residents who may have been exposed to infected staff.

"The ability to have that information quickly is what makes this successful," he said.

There also appears to be confusion for inmates on the inside at Greene.

Rashad Givhan, an inmate who spoke to the Times Union by phone Wednesday, said he was tested for the virus last week, and received a positive test result Oct. 15. He was then quarantined with other inmates who tested positive. Four days later, a correction officer handed out sheets of paper to him and other inmates that stated they had tested negative — even though he had never been given another test.

DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey explained Wednesday that an "unfortunate" clerical error occurred in which several individuals at the jail were notified in writing that they had tested negative when that was not the case.

"The error was quickly corrected," he said. "Facility executive staff have met with the individuals affected to explain the error. None of the men affected were ever moved out of quarantine."

Givhan, who was experiencing body aches and shortness of breath Wednesday, said no one on staff clarified what happened. He said he asked the nurse on staff how he could have tested negative if he hadn't taken a second test, and he said she told him inmates were "not supposed to have received" the notices but never clarified what his COVID-19 status actually was.

"They just tell you if you gonna catch it you gonna catch it," he said.

He remained in quarantine Wednesday, and was scheduled to be released back into general population Oct. 27, he said.

His wife, Alaina, said she just wants him home. State records show he was incarcerated this August on a parole violation. Alaina said it was for missing curfew.

State responds

DOCCS announced Wednesday that in consultation with the state Department of Health it would be deploying a rapid testing option that afternoon for the approximately 1,300 employees at Greene and Elmira correctional facilities. Elmira, located in Chemung County, also has a large outbreak with 242 confirmed inmate infections as of Tuesday.

Visitation to the two facilities was suspended Wednesday afternoon until further notice, as were transfers in or out of the facilities and programs, Mailey said.

"The department takes seriously its duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those that work and live in our correctional facilities," he said. "During this difficult time, the department is appreciative of everyone's patience and understanding as we continue to face this virus together."

Greene County officials and the union representing correction officers say it shouldn't have taken so long into the outbreaks for the state to take such action.

State Assemblyman Chris Tague, who attended Wednesday's news conference, said the state should also require inmates to test negative before they are released. He said at least one family has been exposed to the virus after their loved one was released from Greene. The family had requested the inmate be tested first, he said, but was denied.

"The family took it upon themselves to all get tested that same day," he said. "Results came back and a few days later the released individual tested positive, exposing his entire family and a very vulnerable family member."

DOCCS should also notify the county to which the inmate is being released so the health department can arrange a quarantine, officials said.

Mike Powers, president of the state Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said his union is also asking for mass testing of inmates and employees across the DOCCS system going forward. The union requested routine testing of staff back in March, but the request "fell on deaf ears," he said.

Groden said employees should be tested on a periodic basis. He pointed to nursing homes, where the governor mandated weekly testing of staff in an effort to catch the virus before it has a chance to spread.

"It's the same type of facility — you have limited contact, less mobility, a frail population," he said. "You've got the same population in a prison... why hasn't it happened? Why has it come to this?"

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

DOCCS said it is in the midst of targeted testing of the state's entire incarcerated population at state correctional facilities while "continuing to follow science-based protocols established at the beginning of the pandemic."

That testing is expected to be done by the end of November, he said. In addition, he noted that correction officers and other essential correctional facility workers can request to be tested by their personal physician or at one of the state's testing sites. Any staff member who is identified as a potential exposure during a contact trace is quarantined and referred for testing, he added.

To date, 1,167 inmates, 1,422 staff and 103 parolees across the DOCCS system have tested positive for the virus, state data show. Eighteen inmates, five staff and four parolees have died.

"It took a crisis," Groden said. "It shouldn't have taken a crisis. We've been bending backwards to try to prevent this from spreading but it doesn't appear that that same effort has occurred on the state level."

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(c)2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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