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State Department of Correction officials announced Thursday they have suspended prison visits and community inmate work crews in an effort to protect prisoners, employees, and the public from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But union officials are concerned that if the virus which has killed thousands worldwide blows through the state’s prison system, health care workers who are already short-staffed will be overwhelmed.

“How are we going to make sure our jails and our prisons are adequately staffed with healthcare workers?” Rob Barall, president of SEIU 1199, said.

Pedro Zayas, the spokesman for the union which represents nearly 700 healthcare workers in the state’s prisons, expressed similar concerns.

“They are already short-staffed by about 150 workers and a lot of overtime is already built into the system,” Zayas said. “There’s also a worldwide shortage of supplies and inventory.”

Staff is prepared and working well with leadership, said nursing supervisor Kara Phillips who works at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center. “Everybody is taking it very seriously,” Phillips said.

“We have a plan in place that both medical and custody have worked on together. We’ve worked out from the first case to if it becomes a pandemic in the prisons,” she said.

All social visits will end as of today but to help make up for the loss, inmates will get two free phone calls per week for the next 30 days, officials said.

“We are well aware of the importance of visits to the offender population,” DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “This is a difficult, but necessary decision. We have no choice but to take whatever steps necessary to ensure everyone’s health and safety.”

Inmates have been given access to soap and are being encouraged to take the same steps that the Centers for Disease Control recommend to avoid spreading the virus including frequent hand-washing, no hand-shaking and keeping hands off of their faces, officials said.

Dr. Matthew Cartter, the state Epidemiologist and Director of Infectious Diseases, singled out exposure to people who are coughing and sneezing as the most significant driver of COVID-19. Concerns over the spread of the virus prompted Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday to issue an executive order banning all gatherings of over 250 people.

In an effort to reduce the chances of the virus spreading throughout the state’s more than 12,000 inmates, the DOC also is limiting non-essential transfers of inmates and limiting recreation groups to one housing unit at a time. Newly arrested defendants who will be held following arraignment will be screened with questions, DOC spokesman Andrius Banevicius said.

The questions will include whether the defendant has experienced shortness of breath, fever or cough in the past 14 days and if they have been in close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with or is being evaluated for exposure to, coronavirus, Banevicius said.

“Offenders are also being encouraged to seek medical treatment if they have a fever, a cough or shortness of breath,” he said.

Officials are waiving the $3 co-pay for a medical visit to make sure inmates with limited resources are seeking medical attention.

Phillips conceded that the DOC is short on healthcare workers but “like everyone else we’re encouraging people to do what they can to stay healthy,” she said. “I feel like we’re in okay shape. We have all of our personal protective [gear] ready to go and we’re trying to get more — there’s a market shortage right now.”

Employees are also working to make sure the prisons are as clean as possible, she said.

“Everybody is on board and communicating,” Phillips said. “I feel like this is a bit of good news for a change.”