At least 2 nurses, doctor leave jobs at Tenn. prison over mask policies

"To not allow the mitigation of risk with proven methods is unconscionable," a Bledsoe County Correctional Complex doctor said

By Ben Benton
Chattanooga Times/Free Press

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — At least two nurses and a doctor left their jobs at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex west of Pikeville, Tennessee, after they were told they couldn't wear protective masks while working inside.

The prison houses more than 2,500 inmates.

COVID-19 issues in Tennessee's prisons are developing almost daily. On Wednesday, state prison officials announced that five inmates at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee, may have been exposed to a non-state employee who tested positive for COVID-19. The inmates were quarantined, and officials said they had not shown any symptoms and that "steps have been taken to identify, screen and quarantine any staff who may have come into direct contact with the individual."

That followed an April 1 state correction department news release that reported three inmates at the prison in Bledsoe were possibly exposed to a non-state employee who tested positive for COVID-19. TDOC officials said the inmates were quarantined and had not shown symptoms as of that day.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Thursday that the state would "do two mass testings" at the Bledsoe prison and Northwest Correctional Complex.

She said the tests will be for staff, noting there have been "no confirmed" cases among inmates. "So our National Guard partners being in those facilities en masse will be doing testing," Piercey said.

At the state prison in Bledsoe, Dr. Emma Rich remains on a leave of absence over masks. She first brought up the subject of wearing personal protective equipment for use with inmates who had not tested positive for COVID-19 on March 31.

Rich said she was told not to wear a mask despite recent concerns about COVID-19 exposure involving a vendor at the prison and inmates. The company Rich works for is Centurion, the firm that has held the health care contract with the Tennessee Department of Correction since 2013, state officials said.

"That mask is as much for their protection as it is mine," Rich said. "To not allow the mitigation of risk with proven methods is unconscionable."

Likewise, Jennifer Baril, a traveling nurse who formerly supervised the infirmary and clinic inside the Bledsoe prison, said she quit last week after being told she couldn't wear a protective mask while treating and interacting with inmates, and at one point she couldn't even bring her own to work.

"I even brought my own personal N95 mask to work and I was told to remove it and to put it through the detector," Baril said, noting the very "public" nature of the prison's metal detecting machines and potential for contamination. She was very reluctant to use her own mask then, even if allowed, she said.

State correction spokesman Rob Reburn referred questions to the health care contractor.

"Being that our medical staff is contracted out, questions regarding employment status need to go through our partners Centurion/Corizon Health," Reburn said in an email.

Rich said that after a number of conversations she ultimately was offered the ability to file Family and Medical Leave Act paperwork to request an accommodation to be able to wear a mask while seeing patients, citing her status as someone at high risk of COVID-19 complications.

She said she is in the process of completing that paperwork and awaiting word on a change in policy so she can return to work.

Centurion staff members Rich identified as parties to the conversations did not respond to emails seeking comment.

In response to more than a dozen questions sent Tuesday to the company, Centurion officials released this statement:

"From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Centurion has worked closely with the Tennessee Department of Correction and local health agencies to ensure our staff are prepared to manage the possible spread of the virus in correctional facilities. We follow the most up-to-date and evolving guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and public health officials for personal protective equipment (PPE) and adjust our policies as new information becomes available. We will continue working with the Department of Correction and other local officials to address guidelines as they learn more, to ensure that our staff are protected and the inmates we serve receive the best possible care."

These issues come as the American Civil Liberties Union issued a recent statement calling for transparency from state prison officials and applauding the release of information earlier this month about three inmates likely being exposed to COVID-19 by a non-state employee.

The ACLU had some questions, too, about the number of tests given at each of the state's prisons, how many were positive, the number of staff members tested, how many tests are pending, how many inmates or staff members are in quarantine or isolation without receiving a test and under what conditions.

ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg and Jonathan D. Cooper, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, both called for Gov. Lee to address those numbers in his daily press briefings, starting April 6, but so far information from the governor's office has fallen short of answering all those questions, though testing plans were announced Thursday.

Baril said some nurses at the prison can't afford to lose their jobs, and their lives and those of others are potentially at stake because of protective equipment policies.

"Somebody has to stand up for these other nurses who haven't quit," she said. "It's absurd. It's airborne. They're trying to make these nurses sign up as suicide bombers."


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