By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Ten employees of the Allegheny County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 50 are currently quarantined as a result of community exposure and are not exposures from the workplace. The quarantines have left the jail short staffed.
“While these steps will impact staffing levels at the facility, we have worked with the union leadership to ensure the proper staffing to maintain the safety and security of all inmates and employees. We are confident that these measures will ensure the necessary levels of staffing for the continued security of the facility.
“We also continue to follow the advice of the facility’s medical provider as it relates to precautions for inmates. As has been done since the very beginning of this pandemic, those measures are in line with the guidance provided by the CDC, PA Department of Health, PA Department of Corrections, and the Allegheny County Health Department.”
But, according to sources inside the Allegheny County Jail and sources familiar with the massive exposure, employees were exposed at two recent, large social events — a party and a wedding — where many employees were in attendance.
“They get on us here about making sure we’re wearing masks and social-distancing and are quick to write us up for it,” one employee said. “But, they can all get together outside of work spread the virus.”
The Current reached out to Allegheny County Spokesperson Amie Downs for official confirmation of how the massive exposure happened, but she said “the jail is not privy to the information provided by the employees to Health Department (ACHD) case investigators. ACHD has also not made such information public. Based on data gathered by case investigators for all cases, the vast majority of spread is coming from private gatherings. Weddings and parties would certainly be examples of those.”
And while the jail has set protocols for employees at work, Downs said that “neither the county nor the jail has provided guidance to employees about what they can or cannot do outside of their workplace in excess of that provided by ACHD for the general public. The guidance put out by federal, state and local health officials, however, is shared through our HR Department so that employees are aware of what is expected outside of the workplace as well.”
While it’s unclear when these events were held, COVID-19 cases have been surging in Allegheny County and across the country. And additional guidance limiting gatherings have been put in place. Last week the Allegheny County Health Department asked “to stay at home to stop social gatherings to stem the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county. Residents are advised to only leave home to go to work or school, for essential needs such as seeking medical care, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, getting food, or the like. Residents must always wear a face mask and practice physical distancing by staying at least six feet away from others in accordance with the November 17 state masking order.”
Employees are worried how the quarantine is going to affect jail operations. The Current also asked what the agreement between jail administrators and union officials outlined in terms of proper coverage and of the 50 quarantined and 10 infected employees, what departments or jobs they hold. That information is still being gathered.
Activists have also taken notice of not only the quarantine of 60 employees, but allege that active COVID-19 symptoms in incarcerated individuals are being ignored. Attorneys for the ACLU, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, sent a letter today to attorneys for Allegheny County and the County Jail. The letter also alleges that employees were exposed by social gatherings held outside of work.
“We have received reports that since Friday, November 20, 2020, multiple women incarcerated on 4F and 4E have submitted sick call slips and asked correctional staff to contact medical staff because they have been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms,” according to the letter. “There has been no response by ACJ despite the fact that at least one of the guards who tested positive was in direct physical contact with women on 4F on the same day she was placed in quarantine.”
The letter goes on to list the many symptoms the women are experiencing and the individual employees (names redacted) who were in contact with the incarcerated women, who have either tested positive or gone on quarantine.
“We have been told that those two women and their cellmates have been exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Additionally, it has been reported that incarcerated workers who distribute meal trays and hygiene products to the people who reside on the housing pod are exhibiting symptoms of the virus. We are further troubled that ACJ has apparently not conducted any contact tracing of Officer’s [REDACTED]’s interactions with the women incarcerated on level 4, as none of the incarcerated women have been consulted, advised, or tested by medical staff,” the letter continues. “We are requesting that the jail test the above-named individuals pursuant to the consent order in this case.
“Given the extraordinary rates of COVID-19 in the community at the moment, prudence and reason also dictate testing everybody on 4F, as well as all other pods where staff who tested positive interacted directly with incarcerated people. We also want to emphasize that decisions regarding whether to test an individual for COVID-19 are medical decisions and must be made by a trained medical professional. Testing decisions, including decisions not to test, must be documented, and include notes on interviews with incarcerated people and their reported symptoms. Additionally, we are requesting that contact tracing be performed in regard to all incarcerated people who have been in proximity to staff who have tested positive or are on quarantine.”