With seven confirmed cases of the coronavirus among staff members of Lemon Creek Correctional Center, the Department of Corrections is taking action to contain the spread.
“On each shift at Lemon Creek, there’s roughly, give or take, eight correction officers that are on duty. We are still able to meet the minimum staffing needs of the facility,” said DOC spokesperson Sarah Gallagher in a phone interview. “Right now, there are seven that have tested positive over the course of a week.”
Gallagher confirmed that no inmates in Alaska had yet tested positive. Four inmates at LCCC have been tested and confirmed negative, Gallagher said. DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said in a press conference Wednesday that medical personnel at DOC facilities make the call on who to test. LCCC does have some advantages over many workplaces for determining who needs testing, Gallagher said.
“We have the unique opportunity to review camera footage to determine contact very quickly. It is a big help, because it’s obviously very accurate,” Gallagher said. “Ten hours of camera footage takes eight hours to watch. It’s been quite the process but they’ve been doing a really good job.”
In the likely scenario that more staff become sick, Gallagher said that the DOC has contingencies in place to make sure the facility is able to keep running and keep the inmates safe.
“Whatever needs to be done we can do it. I know that a lot of our staff is very flexible and they want to help and they’re willing to help,” Gallagher said. “It’s obviously a really tricky calendar dance for when people can be cleared by public health.”
Gallagher said the DOC and LCCC started drilling scenarios on how to maintain the health of the facility in January, and while the outbreak is unfortunate, but not unexpected.
“We started preparing for a potential virus situation in the facilities in January,” Dahlstrom said. “I don’t see any of the preparations being a barrier.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in the press conference that while the DOC will be making further adjustments to protect the inmates, the staff and the population, they’re not planning on releasing violent offenders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at this time.
“That’s a bigger decision than the commissioner, and we’ll be having those discussions,” Dunleavy said. “I think we’ll all want to be safe, not just from this virus but from individuals that may do us harm.”
Gallagher said that DOC has no idea why LCCC is the only DOC facility that has had employees test positive for the coronavirus.
“Unfortunately, we are aware of how vulnerable our population is. We know the importance of keeping the population safe,” Gallagher said. “We have much larger facilities with much more staff and it’s a mystery.”
The DOC also wanted to quell rumors that workers are being forced to return before they’ve been cleared by the state public health and epidemiology teams.
“Nobody is returning to work after testing positive until they’ve been cleared by the state public health team,” Gallagher said. “It is absolutely a rumor and not true at all.”
As the DOC deals with the spread of the virus, one of the programs in place is a mask-sewing project.
“So the inmates are paid to make the masks,” Gallagher said. “You obviously have to have some sewing skills.”
Currently, 20 inmates at LCCC are participating, Gallagher said — 11 sewing and 9 helping. Masks go through multiple stages en route to completion, including preparing, sewing, washing and packaging.
“I know they have shifts running night and day. It’s a 24-hour operation,” Gallagher said. “I think the biggest obstacle is just getting the supplies. Our institutions have been great about sharing supplies.”
Many organizations, individuals and reentry coalitions have donated materials, Gallagher said. The DOC has also purchased 38 sewing machines for facilities statewide to augment those already in service.
The DOC hopes to make 40,000 masks through the project by April 21, Gallagher said. LCCC is on track to contribute to that goal, Gallagher said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or email@example.com.