The COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC is under control – PIO Toni Schwartz

By Elpidio R. Estioko

There is something Hawaii residents need to know: COVID-19 did not spare the inmates and staff in one of its detention cells on the island!

However, the outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) is under control, according to Toni Schwartz, Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (PSD).

“There are currently no inmates hospitalized,” she added.

As to the class action suit filed over the COVID-19 outbreak at the OCCC, Schwartz said: “The Department of Public Safety has not been served with a copy of the lawsuit. We have been advised not to comment on possible pending litigation. We defer to the Attorney General’s office for response on legal matters.”

This was the latest information Hawaii Filipino Chronicle got from the class suit filed after the Aug. 7 COVID-19 outbreak in OCCC where 310 inmates and 9 staff were reported found positive for the virus.

In an email sent to us, Schwartz said, “The Department of Public Safety follows the national standards and guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH). We are aware of the risks over-population and crowding in our jails, especially during this pandemic and that is why the PSD Health Care Division developed a comprehensive pandemic response plan for the facilities that is reviewed by the facilities and updated frequently.

“Each facility has adapted the plan to meet their individual facility needs. Each facility has situations they deal with that are unique to their facility, and the administration at those facilities takes that into consideration as they execute their plans to the best of their ability.”

Schwartz added in her email that PSD staff are practicing the recommended health and safety protocols such as wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Staff and inmates are under close PSD supervision as well.

“All facilities have been issued PPE and routinely keep an inventory of PPE for continuous distribution to staff as recommended in the Pandemic Plan. Each employee has been issued several face masks. Face shields have been issued to all facilities for distribution to staff as added protection. Staff have gloves and other protective supplies, available all over the facility,” she explained.

Aside from proving PPE to the staff, inmates are frequently informed about ways to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Inmates are frequently reminded of proactive ways they can help prevent the spread of germs, including wearing their facility-issued masks at all times, frequent handwashing, sanitizing their common living areas, refraining from sharing cups and utensils with other and limiting close contact,” Schwartz said.

“They have also been reminded if they are not feeling well, to report it immediately.”

On Aug. 7, PSD confirmed the first inmate and three employees were found COVID-19 positive. They were immediately placed in a mandatory 14-day quarantine, as is procedure for all new inmates and staff.

“The facility acted quickly to implement the Department’s COVID-19 pandemic protocol for correctional facilities, in an effort to mitigate any potential spread of the virus,” said Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda.

According to Espinda, PSD worked closely with DOH to ensure and maintain “the health and welfare of our staff and the incarcerated population.”

PIO Schwartz confirmed that all facilities follow the PSD Pandemic Response Plan which falls in line with CDC and DOH guidelines for identifying and isolating inmates who fit the CDC and DOH criteria for testing.

Meanwhile, PSD and the DOH are continuing mass testing of OCCC inmates and staff to mitigate virus spread in the incarcerated population. There were no new positive OCCC inmate or staff results reported lately and there are currently no inmates hospitalized. The total number of PSD staff who have recovered and returned to work has jumped to 85.

In a press release issued on Sept. 28, PSD’s Health Care Division “is working with Hawaii Department of Health to conduct mass testing for COVID-19 at all correctional facilities. The broad-based testing at the neighbor island jails is beginning with the staff. PSD and the DOH are continuing mass testing of OCCC inmates to mitigate virus spread in the incarcerated population.”

PSD’s COVID-19 update reported that OCCC has seen a substantial decrease in the number of active infected inmates since the beginning of August. DOH began the fourth round of follow-up testing at OCCC to make sure the virus remains under control in the incarcerated population. There were no new COVID-19 test results received for OCCC staff or inmates lately and there are currently no inmates hospitalized, the release stated.

According to a Hawaii News Now Sept. 21 article, “A class-action suit was filed over COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC” alleging that “prison officials failed to protect staffers and several sick inmates with health ones.”

According to Atty. Eric Seitz, the lawyer who filed the class suit, “This was not just negligence, it was not indifference. It was in our view malicious that they did not take proper steps to protect people who cannot protect themselves.”

Among the allegations are: “one inmate who got sick said he was required to work in a kitchen with a prison staffer who was infected with COVID-19.”

Another prisoner said he got infected “after he was placed in the same room for two days with another inmate who was feverish and later tested positive.” The ACO alleged that “she was assigned to one of the prison’s annexes where there were 65 positive cases.”

PSD had no immediate comment on the lawsuit but has said that it has provided staff with proper equipment, including face shield, masks and gloves.

Besides, according to Schwartz, they are still waiting for the copy of the class suit and they are “not in a position to discuss the case due to possible pending litigation.”

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

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