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Michigan shortens time for prison staff to return to work with mild COVID symptoms

Wilfredo Lee
AP Photo

Some Michigan prison workers are now able to return to work sooner after getting COVID-19.

Ten state prisons are operating under contingency plans because of staffing shortages. There, corrections officers who got COVID can now return to work after five days if they’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and wear a KN95 mask.

Those without all their COVID vaccines also need a negative test. But that test is not required for workers at contingency prisons who are fully vaccinated and boosted.

Matt Tjapkes, who leads the nonprofit Humanity for Prisoners, says the new rules are not enough. A negative test should be necessary to return to work in all cases, Tjapkes said.

"The prisoners have absolutely no choice about who they are exposed to," Tjapkes said. "This is completely under the control of the Department of Corrections. And they have to treat these prisoners humanely.”

Michigan prisons made the changes under a state health department order signed last week that reflects guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said.  Last month, the CDC said people with improving symptoms could stop isolating after five days if they continued to wear a well-fitting mask around others for five days after that.

As the omicron variant spreads many employees have mild or asymptomatic cases, it's been difficult for MDOC to keep up staffing levels with 50 to 100 workers testing positive for the virus each day, Gautz said.

"We need to be able to have staff who are able to work inside the prisons to be able to run them safely and securely," Gautz said. "Just the same way in which, you know, hospitals need doctors and nurses to be able to continue to maintain their operations, which is, in part, some of the reason why CDC changed their guidance late last year."

As omicron surges, the CDC encourages using a KN95 or N95 mask over a cloth one. Michigan inmates are given cloth masks, Gautz said, although he said the department is working to make KN95s more widely available.

At the 17 Michigan prisons not operating under contingency plans, staff who got COVID can now return to work after seven days instead of 10 if they have mild or no symptoms and a negative test.

Heather Moore is married to an incarcerated man with multiple health issues. She worries the relaxed isolation rules will endanger inmates and says it's been incredibly stressful to have a loved one behind bars during the pandemic.

"It shouldn't be a horrible existence for family to support the people inside any more than it should be a horrible existence to be in prison," Moore said. "Prison is the punishment and so let that be the punishment without piling on disregard and disrespect.”

Moore is a Humanity for Prisoners board member, although she said her opinions are her own.

Gautz says the MDOC is working to ease its staffing crunch through a recertification program that allows employees with previous corrections experience to work inside prisons. And, he said, 23 National Guard members are deployed at two Michigan prisons for tasks including COVID vaccinations, testing and wellness checks.

Although staffing shortages are a problem, Moore says the ultimate solution is to reduce Michigan's prison population.

"To perpetuate a pandemic within a closed, congregate environment where people have no say in their health and safety is ridiculous," Moore said. "It makes zero sense."

As of last week, there were 1,930 COVID-19 cases among about 32,000 Michigan inmates, according to MDOC data updated Wednesday.

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
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