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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
More than 45 corrections officers and over 200 inmates at the state prison in Los Lunas were tested for COVID-19 after a corrections officer fell ill and tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday.
The staff member also taught at the Department of Corrections academy in Santa Fe last week, and that led to several staff members at the academy and central office being asked to self-quarantine.
On Wednesday, 213 inmates and 47 staff members at the Central New Mexico prison in Los Lunas were tested.
The staff members have been asked to self-quarantine and the inmates are under quarantine, a department spokesman said.
The staff member was on duty at the Los Lunas prison Monday when he began feeling ill, was tested for coronavirus and was sent home.
Dirk Lee, president of the corrections officers’ union, said the union hasn’t been receiving any information about COVID-19 transmissions within the prisons.
“They (the department) continue to develop new policies or change existing policies without bargaining, and they refuse to be transparent with plans and protocols,” Lee said. “As a union, we are at a loss due to the lack of information from NMCD (secretary’s office).”
Department spokesman Eric Harrison said, “We understand that frustration and tensions the staff are working under.”
But Harrison said union officials were invited to and participated in twice-weekly video meetings about COVID-19 protocols.
“We began those meetings in March and they are ongoing,” he said. “The union has participated in those meetings. We also have had weekly meetings with the union.”
Lee said the union has been asking for the department’s COVID-19 testing plans for weeks without success.
“AFSCME Council 18 has requested numerous times that NMCD disclose this information, along with all training procedures, to no avail,” he said. “Nothing has been received.”
He said the union’s contract with the state calls for joint health committees with full union participation.
Harrison said the department is preparing to begin testing 5% of the staff at each prison each week for the foreseeable future. This is the state prison system’s second COVID-19 scare.
Last month, a nurse at the privately run prison in Santa Rosa tested positive for coronavirus but, after extensive testing and quarantines, there was no major outbreak.
With the exception of the privately run prison facility in Otero County, state prison inmates have largely escaped coronavirus so far – only three state inmates in other prisons had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday.
There are 239 inmates who have tested positive for the virus at the Otero County prison.
Harrison said most of those inmates – more than 200 – have shown no symptoms of the virus. Two have died and three are currently hospitalized in El Paso.
He said the department is doing contact tracing to determine how the virus got into the prison since inmates have not been allowed family visits since mid-March.
Since the most recent outbreak, he said all inmates have been tested.
“As of right now, we haven’t pinpointed how exactly the virus got into the facility,” Harrison said during a separate interview. “… The whole concern is staff bringing it in because the inmates never leave.”
Although Harrison acknowledged it was a staff member who had to have brought the virus in, only 27 have been tested so far. They are still awaiting those results.
Harrison said they were following a New Mexico Department of Health plan to test 25% of staff at Otero County and 5% of staff at every other prison in the state. He was unaware of any obstacles in testing every staff member at the facility, but could not say why they hadn’t moved on that yet.
“There was never a full retest of all the staff,” Harrison said. “That’s what they want to do, the plan, it just hasn’t happened yet.”
Nora Meyers Sackett, a governor’s spokeswoman, said 100% of the staff at Otero will be tested Monday. From here on out, she said 25% of the staff there will be tested each week.
All new inmates in the New Mexico system are tested on entry to the reception and diagnostic units – for men that is at the Los Lunas prison and for women it is at the Grants prison. After testing, they are kept separated from inmates in the system for 14 days and then retested before being sent to another prison.