A prison nurse died, and her union says N.J. fails to protect staff from coronavirus behind bars - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

A prison nurse died, and her union says N.J. fails to protect staff from coronavirus behind bars

Taken from NJ.com


May 8, 2020

Nurses in New Jersey prisons are working in “horrific conditions” that pose an “imminent hazard” to their health amid the coronavirus pandemic, a union said this week in a workplace complaint against Rutgers University Correctional Health Care, the group that provides medical care in the state’s adult and juvenile systems.

The union, Health Professionals and Allied Employees, claims Rutgers was partially responsible for the death of Susan Cicala, who worked at Northern State Prison.

“Although management has claimed to take measures to protect employees from COVID-19, those measures have been poorly implemented or lacking,” according to the complaint filed Monday with the state health department. “We believe these workplace exposure factors significantly impacted the conditions which caused RN Susan Cicalo’s death.”

The union raised concerns with Rutgers and the corrections department for weeks with little response, according to union president Debbie White.

“The goal is to change the work environment,” White said.

The complaint was filed with New Jersey’s Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health office, which is similar to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, also known as OSHA.

If the state opens an investigation, any violations found by inspectors can lead to fines. The health department is already investigating the nurse’s death, according to an agency representative.

At least 579 employees in adult prisons and 35 staff in the juvenile system have tested positive for COVID-19, according to public data.

Rutgers spokesman Zach Hosseini declined to comment on the complaint, but wrote in an email that “we have followed state and federal guidelines from the Department of Health and the CDC to ensure the health and safety of our staff and their patients.”

“University Correctional Health Care has been on the frontlines in difficult and challenging environments caring for inmates, who are a vulnerable population,” he wrote. “We are proud of our work providing essential care for those inmates and of how we meet the mission for the state of New Jersey.”

Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez wrote in an email that they “cannot comment on a pending complaint.” Lisa Coryell, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Justice Commission, also declined comment.

The complaint echoes similar concerns officers and inmates have raised for weeks within a prison system that has the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation.

Prison nurses caring directly for COVID-19 patients were only given a single N95 mask for weeks, according to the complaint, forcing staff to wear “filthy, contaminated N95s for exceptionally long periods.” Officials wouldn’t answer questions about how to use the masks, failed to offer training, didn’t provide a safe place to store them and handed out expired masks, the union said.

Read more here.