As COVID rages on rikers, staff crisis delays vaccination mandate for prison staff

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Bellevue Hospital, once the site of makeshift morgues and severe equipment shortages, now houses the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates among public hospital staff. As of last week, 97% of employees had received at least one injection, a testament to the power of the statewide vaccination mandate for healthcare workers.

But this vaccine coverage only applies to clinicians and medical support at New York’s most renowned public hospital. On the 19th floor of the building, dozens of prison officers stand guard above a detention center, where critically ill inmates of Rikers Island and anyone else detained in town are sent for treatment. Frequently, according to several medical sources inside Bellevue, maskless correction officers are seen stationed outside the rooms of COVID patients. And unlike everyone in the field, they are currently not required to be vaccinated.

The loophole, which has frustrated healthcare workers for weeks, will soon be closed, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s newly announced vaccine requirement for all public servants. As the city prepares to implement the sweeping policy, healthcare workers say their experience in the detention center underscores the urgency of the mandate – as well as the significant challenges the city could face in forcing its prison workers. to get vaccinated.

“There are several patients who are hospitalized with COVID, and you have potentially unvaccinated OCs interacting with them and then helping other patients,” said a member of the medical staff, who works with people incarcerated at Rikers Island and at Bellevue. “These guys can be vectors [carriers] for disease.

As of Oct. 15, city data showed that 51% percent of Corrections Department employees had received a vaccine injection, the lowest rate among all city agencies. But while the warrant will require nearly all city workers to receive their first dose on October 29, uniformed correctional officers working in city jails have a separate deadline of December 1.

But as COVID transmission on Rikers Island approaches a pandemic peak, some elected officials and public health experts have questioned the logic of delaying a vaccine requirement for prison staff for another six weeks.

The late implementation is a concession to correctional officers, who have taken advantage of a generous sick leave policy to stop showing up en masse for work. Widespread absenteeism means entire units are left unattended, leading to a surge in violence and self-harm on Rikers, according to Corrections Commissioner Vince Schiraldi.

“We have to weigh the effects of mandatory vaccinations against the loss of staff and the problems that come with it, and these have been pretty serious,” Schiraldi said at a Board of Correction hearing on Tuesday.

While praising de Blasio for the high-profile tenure, City Councilor Keith Powers, who chairs the criminal justice committee, said he was “confused” by the decision to extend the time for correctional officers. “As we put people in overcrowded cells, it is even more urgent for me to get everyone in the prisons in our city vaccinated. “

On Friday, Victor Mercado, a 64-year-old man from the Bronx, became the 13th person to die this year in municipal custody. He would have died of COVID-19, after contracting the disease at the Rikers infirmary, according to his lawyer.

“Prisoners are, like patients in nursing homes, unable to choose which officers or civilian personnel to interact with and under what circumstances,” medical staff said. “It’s hard to justify giving correctional officers more time to make a decision that health workers, teachers and others had to make a month ago.

The combination of the pandemic and operational dysfunction has also left around a quarter of prison inmates in some form of quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus. The period of mandatory solitary confinement prevented them from accessing court dates, slowing the city’s efforts to reduce the prison population.

Despite the COVID designations, inmates told WNYC / Gothamist that correctional officers frequently move between housing units, while ignoring protocols intended to slow the spread of the virus. (Several inquiries to the Corrections Department were not returned.)

In a statement, a spokesperson for the correctional officers’ union said it would oppose the mandate, noting that “any change in terms of employment related to their health and safety is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining “. The president of the group, Benny Boscio, publicly declared he was not vaccinated earlier this month.

De Blasio expressed no concerns on Wednesday about a possible legal challenge by unions against his full tenure, noting that a similar demand on school staff had survived legal action by teachers’ unions. A temporary restraining order pitted state corrections officers against Governor Kathy Hochul’s mandate for healthcare workers was also thrown by a judge last month.

Vaccine mandates have more than a century of legal precedent and are generally respected as long as they do not violate religious or medical protections.

When asked to explain the schedule gap for correctional officers, the mayor said he hoped the current staffing issues at Rikers Island could be resolved by December 1 – the same month that he is leaving his post.

“We’re trying a little bit to achieve a very particular goal in a very particular setting,” said de Blasio. “There is no place with the same conditions as a prison system.”



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