NY CO union rep renews call for PPE after testing positive for COVID-19

NYSCOPBA president Michael Powers called on the governor to make "employee safety a priority" and allow "all staff members the ability to use basic PPE"


By Brian Kelly
Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG, N.Y. — With its president now self-quarantined at his Ogdensburg home with the coronavirus, the state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association is “imploring” the state to allow its workers to use personal protective equipment to prevent the virus’s spread.

Union President Michael B. Powers, who is also an Ogdensburg city councilman, has tested positive for COVID-19 and has been self-quarantining at his home for the last several days, NYSCOPBA announced Monday.

NYSCOPBA is asking the state to allow all employees working in correctional facilities, mental health facilities, parole offices and other agencies deemed essential, the ability to use N95 masks, gloves and disposable smocks. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
NYSCOPBA is asking the state to allow all employees working in correctional facilities, mental health facilities, parole offices and other agencies deemed essential, the ability to use N95 masks, gloves and disposable smocks. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

A statement from the union said Mr. Powers remains in regular contact with correction officers across the state and that news of his positive test reaffirms the union’s position that the state, including the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and the state Office of Mental Health, “must take immediate action to further prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our state correctional and mental health facilities.”

“The dedicated members of NYSCOPBA are mandated to work on the front lines during the COVID-19 crisis. I am calling on the Governor to make employee safety a priority and direct his state agencies to allow all staff members the ability to use basic personal protection equipment,” Mr Powers said. “If the State cannot pay for it, then allow NYSCOPBA to help. Each day that our members are prohibited from wearing protective equipment, they are exposed to being infected and spreading the virus inside and outside of the facilities. We recognize and appreciate that some of our concerns have been addressed. However, further delays to our reasonable requests to protect staff must not continue.”

NYSCOPBA is asking the state to allow all employees working in correctional facilities, mental health facilities, parole offices and other agencies deemed essential, the ability to use the necessary personal protective equipment (PPEs) — specifically N95 masks, gloves and disposable smocks — to assist in preventing the spread. Currently in DOCCS, only those employees who work in isolated or quarantined units are provided PPEs.

The union says continuing to prevent the staff from protecting themselves will not only jeopardize the staff, inmates and inmate-patients, but also raises the likelihood of the virus spreading beyond work sites.

NYSCOPBA said if financial constraints are preventing the state from providing the life-saving equipment needed to protect its workforce, then NYSCOPBA is prepared to meet the needs of our members and provide the essential equipment.

The union has already made repeated requests to limit exposures. In letters dated March 9th and March 14th and sent to multiple state agencies, NYSCOPBA outlined its demands calling for several preventative measures to quell the spread of the virus. Initially, those demands were not met with the urgency that this situation requires, the union claims.

NYSCOBA says that more recently though, DOCCS has been providing direction and addressing several of the issues raised by the Union — but there is certainly more that needs to be done. Conversely, the union contends that the Office of Mental Health has not consistently communicated with the union or taken the necessary precautions to protect the staff and patients in the mental health facilities, which the union says “is unacceptable and must be addressed.

The union’s statement said the state should adopt measures similar those taken by the New York City Department of Corrections, which has given staff permission to use their own N95 respirator or surgical masks and promised to distribute more masks to staff as the virus spreads.

Mr. Powers said about 56 state correction officers and sergeants that have tested positive for COVID-19, including himself. One of the officers is hospitalized and requires the use of a ventilator. Additionally, hundreds of DOCCS employees are under self-quarantine or directed by their personal physicians to remain under quarantine. About 35 Office of Mental Health or Office for People With Developmental Disabilities employees are under orders to quarantine, with six workers having tested positive for the virus. Of those six positive tests, two are hospitalized with one remaining in critical condition.

“We can be assured that the total of positive cases will increase,” Mr. Powers said. “The numbers underscore the fact that our state facilities are on the cusp of a wide outbreak. This concern must be taken seriously, and certain measures must be put in place immediately to protect staff.”

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©2020 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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