Following reports of the first COVID-related deaths of Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees, the governor’s office told The Frontier on Friday officials are discussing hazard pay and expect to have initial plans rolled out “soon.”
Two employee deaths were “possibly related to COVID-19,” the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported on Friday. The employees worked in administration and the Oklahoma State Reformatory, according to DOC.
The agency on Thursday reported three employee deaths possibly related to COVID-19 but changed the number to two on Friday. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Friday.
DOC acknowledged inmate deaths at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center and Lexington Assessment and Reception Center earlier this month in news releases, but the agency had yet to publicly release any information on the employees’ deaths as of Friday afternoon.
However, on the agency’s COVID-19 Update Hotline, a recorded message says that DOC experienced the “tragic death” of a colleague in administration.
As outbreaks have appeared in facilities across the state, prisoner rights advocates and some lawmakers have called for hazard pay, as well as more widespread testing for corrections employees to slow the spread in prisons.
Charlie Hanemma, a spokesman for Gov. Kevin Stitt, told The Frontier on Friday afternoon that officials are “actively discussing” how to best implement hazard pay for some corrections employees and he expects more concrete plans to start rolling out as early as next week.
The governor’s office, in partnership with DOC and the Oklahoma State Department of Health, is exploring options for mandatory testing for corrections employees, Hanemma said.
Oklahoma Public Employees Association has twice called for hazard pay for correctional staff, arguing they’re at higher risk of becoming infected with the virus at work.
More than 50 staff members at the agency were considered to have active infections as of Friday, according to DOC. More than 250 employees have tested positive in total. Outbreaks with more than 100 inmate infections have been reported in nine correctional facilities, according to DOC.
At least five inmates have died after becoming infected with COVID-19.
The agency recently started to deploy “Rapid Response Teams” to facilities declared as “hot spots” for viral spread, DOC announced in a news release on Friday evening. The team, along with helping facilities implement response plans, will deliver additional protective gear, sanitation supplies and a fogger, the release said.
The testing of all employees is not part of the agency’s response plan, a DOC spokesman said in an email to The Frontier earlier this month. Employees are offered tests, but testing is not required.
However, staff are screened with a temperature check and health screening symptom questionnaire before each shift, the spokesman said.
“The only way to stop asymptomatic DOC employees from unknowingly spreading the virus to inmates and their communities is by implementing a regular testing program,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin in a news release last week.
Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analysis with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, agreed the agency needs to develop a plan to regularly offer testing to correctional staff. Not only would testing help slow the viral spread within correctional facilities, it would also benefit surrounding communities, Shade said.
“Whatever is in those buildings, whatever is happening to the individuals and our fellow Oklahomans that are incarcerated, it’s coming back into our communities on a daily basis as these guards enter and exit those facilities,” he said on Friday.
Following the employee deaths, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association on Friday renewed calls for hazard pay for those working in correctional facilities.
The group penned a letter to the governor on Sep. 3 seeking $2-an-hour hazard pay for correctional staff and suggested the funds come from the more than $1.2 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds that the federal government allocated to Oklahoma.
“We are also concerned about the number of DOC employees, especially at our state’s correctional facilities who have contracted the virus,” OPEA said in an emailed statement on Friday.
“Thankfully many of those have recovered. However, DOC reports there are still more than 70 employees who are currently positive for COVID-19. We wish a full recovery to those who are still fighting this virus.”