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New guidelines at Pa. prison after COVID-19 staffing shortages

Staffers who have potentially been exposed may be permitted to continue working if they display no symptoms

By Mark Pesto
The Tribune-Democrat

EBENSBURG, Pa. — Members of the Cambria County Prison Board voted on Wednesday to adopt new staffing guidelines meant to mitigate employee shortages caused by a recent outbreak of COVID-19 at the prison.

“With the staffing shortages created by COVID, along with the additional posts needing filled, filling the schedule has become a nightmare,” Warden Christian Smith reported to the board.

“However, the officers’ union has been very willing to waive certain aspects of their contract in order to accommodate filling shifts. … I’d like to publicly acknowledge all of my staff for their efforts during this very trying time.”

Counselors, secretarial workers, support staffers and corrections officers have all been reassigned out of their job categories to do necessary tasks such as preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning the facility – “basically contingency plan after contingency plan,” Smith said.

Under the new guidelines, prison staffers who have potentially been exposed to the virus may be permitted to continue working if they display no symptoms and if their “absence would adversely impact the ability for the prison to continue to provide an appropriate level of staffing or response.”

Staffers who have had a potential exposure to COVID-19, but remain asymptomatic, are to notify their supervisors immediately, according to the guidelines. Such staffers are to be tested three days after the date of the potential exposure and will remain on the job until their test results are received, taking precautions such as making several daily checks for symptoms and wearing personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask and a face shield.

Only if an asymptomatic staffer’s test comes back positive will he or she be placed off work and directed to self-quarantine.

Staffers who display symptoms of COVID-19 will continue to be placed off work and directed to self-quarantine immediately, according to the guidelines.

Sixty-two inmates at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, Smith reported. The two-week quarantine period for 43 of those inmates was set to expire Wednesday. Mass testing of the inmate population has been conducted each week for the past three weeks, with the latest round of testing completed Tuesday, the warden said.

Twenty-four prison employees also had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, although Smith said that 11 of them are considered recovered. Test results for four more employees were still pending Wednesday.

Ninety-six inmates were sent to SCI-Huntingdon on Oct. 1 and 2 in order to free up space for prison officials to close the facility’s two dormitory-style housing units, which don’t contain individual cells, making it impossible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Seventy-four of those inmates remained at SCI-Huntingdon as of Wednesday, Smith said.

“Daily sanitation, mitigation and prevention measures continue to be the norm,” he said.

“N95 respirators and face shields have been mandatory for all prison staff, and medical gowns are made mandatory for those working in close contact with the positive inmates.”

Some inmates cleared

Smith revealed Wednesday that 11 inmates who had been investigated in connection with an Oct. 2 riot at the prison have been cleared and removed from disciplinary housing after it was determined that they didn’t participate in the riot.

The ongoing investigation into the incident remains focused on the other 20 inmates who had been in the housing unit where the riot took place. Investigators are reviewing video footage of the six-hour-long incident in order to document each individual inmate’s actions throughout, Smith said last week.

Smith told local media outlets last week that the riot is believed to have been caused by high tensions triggered by the COVID-19-related lockdown of the prison. He indicated that some inmates were unhappy with changes made to meal procedures and didn’t want to move out of their dormitory-style unit into a unit with cells.

Upon the conclusion of the investigation, all information gathered will be forwarded to the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office for potential criminal prosecution, Smith said.


©2020 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)