The nation's largest Federal-employee union has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to take the necessary steps to protect its workers from the spread of COVID-19.
According to the VA, 19 employees and 361 veterans have died due to the pandemic. The BOP reported its first employee COVID-19 death on April 18. The agency said that 465 inmates and close to 300 employees had tested positive for the virus and 18 inmates had died, CBS reported.
Ignored Quarantine Regs?
The American Federation of Government Employees alleges the VA and the BOP directed staff who came in contact with individuals "who have shown symptoms of the virus to report to work without regard to the 14-day self-quarantine guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
Roy Coleman, an Emergency Medical Technician at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La., died April 6 at 64. He was a veteran who belonged to AFGE Local 2525.
On April 7, Vianna Thompson, 52, a Registered Nurse at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, died from the coronavirus. She was also a veteran and a member of AFGE Local 2152.
Robin Grubs, 39, a Case Manager assigned to the BOP Penitentiary in Atlanta, died April 14 at home but was not tested until after she passed, the agency reported. According to CBS, four correctional officers at Atlanta facility complained "of insufficient access to protective equipment and inconsistent communication about how many staff and inmates were infected at any given time."
The disclosure of the results of Ms. Grubs's autopsy by the agency was blasted by an AFGE official who accused the agency "a lack of compassion" for an "employee died in the line of duty."
'Scandalous Lack of Action'
"Their avoidable and untimely deaths highlight the risks facing front-line health-care providers and other mission-critical workers every day—and the scandalous lack of action to keep these workers safe," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement released after the union filed its complaints. "We hear daily reports from our members—many of whom still do not have the proper protective equipment to keep themselves and the public they are serving safe from further spread of the virus."
He continued, "We wouldn't send our soldiers off to war without the proper equipment, but that's precisely the situation facing many of the Federal workers on the front lines of this pandemic. Employees are literally risking their lives to do their jobs, and the government must take immediate action to protect these brave employees and the public they serve."
During an April 22 appearance on MSNBC, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie defended his agency's response to the pandemic, noting that the agency had been called upon by governors in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida to buttress local virus-containment efforts in state facilities.
He said most of the 19 employees who died "had no contact" with VA patients, and emphasized that the 361 veterans lost to the disease was "out of 9.5 million veterans in our system."
Calls Infection-Rate Minimal
VA health-care workers and first-responders have been vocal about their lack of personal protective equipment, although some progress was reported recently. Mr. Wilkie insisted that the VA clinicians were supplied whatever the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had required and that the agency infection rate was just half of one percent, "compared to Italy, where 25 percent of the cases were health-care workers."
Throughout the nation, unions representing health-care workers have accused the CDC of diluting the standards for PPE like masks to extend the life of the very limited supply that was on hand. They claim this has increased infections among those workers and put their families at risk.
The CDC stated that 27 health-care professionals had died as of April 15, but the Guardian and Kaiser Health News reported that figure was based on a review of only 16 percent of the nation's confirmed COVID-19 cases, "so the true numbers of health-care infections and deaths are certainly far higher."
The pandemic first hit a Bureau of Prisons facility in south central Louisiana particularly hard. According to local press reports, four Federal prisoners succumbed to the virus at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex.
Called Back Prematurely?
The AFGE in its legal complaint also alleged the BOP ordered back to work staff who had been screened and sent home due to possible exposure within 48 hours of suspected infection, despite CDC guidelines that require a 14-day self-quarantine.
For years the AFGE and Members of Congress have unsuccessfully pressed the BOP to fill thousands of vacancies at its 122 prison facilities, where the workforce has shrunk 38,000 to 33,000 workers.
The gaps in staffing have been exacerbated by the number of BOP employees sidelined with the virus, New York City-based local presidents have said.
In the COVID-19 complaint, the AFGE asserted that the VA also "violated OSHA standards by failing to provide workers with N95 respirators and other necessary personal protective equipment" and of failing to "isolate suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, and refusing to provide COVID-19 testing to employees who have been exposed to those known or suspected of having the virus."
Hotbeds for Virus
Throughout the country congregate-care facilities, like prisons and long-term care facilities, have become hotbeds for the coronavirus, which can be particularly lethal for older individuals with pre-existing conditions like cancer, diabetes or asthma.
On March 31, Federal officials announced that BOP inmates throughout the system would be kept in their assigned cells in lock-down for at least 14 days, with the possibility that period might be extended.
According to the agency, its initial COVID-19 planning in January was guided by directives from the World Health Organization, the CDC, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Vice President.
Before the lockdown, the union alleged that the BOP had "violated OSHA standards by continuing to transfer inmates across prisons, including moving inmates who have tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19 into areas of the country without any rate of coronavirus infection."
It also charged that the agency allowed inmates to continue to gather in group settings without social distancing and had not provided N95 masks to custodial staff and officers transporting inmates who had tested positive for the virus.
Photo above by Richard Roberson/Flickr
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