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AFSCME Local 387 President Sean Howard said he likely has permanent heart damage from contracting COVID-19 in his job as a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Virginia Ligi also still suffers the lingering effects of COVD-19 even though she was one of the first state Department of Correction employees to be diagnosed with the disease in April.

Aimmee Reyes-Greaves believes that the stressful working conditions, with the agency constantly understaffed due to COVID-19, is only lengthening the recovery time for her and other agency employees who have contracted the disease on the job.

The three, along with officials from several unions representing more than 4,000 DOC employees including AFSCME Council 4 Executive Director Jodi Barr, staged a virtual press conference Wednesday to express their frustration that the agency hasn’t rolled out a distribution plan, or even enlightened employees about the plan to get everyone vaccinated.

“We were told that we were going to be second in line for vaccinations,” said Ligi, a correction officer at Cheshire. “We were told that the rollout date was early January. It is now almost February and there is no plan. I have no clue to when, and if I could get a vaccine.”

The vaccinations are expected to start in early February, according to a staff memo issued Wednesday by DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros. “Our correctional staff and the inmate population are part of the Phase 1B of the vaccination rollout, with vaccinations for facility staff beginning sometime during early February,” he said.

Staff will be contacted by a representative from each facility asking if people plan on being vaccinated to get a sense of how many doses the agency will need, Quiros said, before encouraging employees to get vaccinated.

“Getting a COVID-19 vaccine in an important step to prevent getting sick with COVID-19 virus,” Quiros said. “Let me assure you that I plan on getting vaccinated when it is my turn to do so.”

About 1,000 DOC employees and more than 3,600 inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with 19 inmates dying as of Wednesday, Michael Vargo, a correction officer and president of AFSCME Local 1565, said. 

With 6,000 employees and 9,000 inmates, the DOC is one of the state’s largest congregate living settings which tend to be more complicated when it comes to vaccine distribution, state Chief Operation Officer Josh Geballe said last week.

The state is currently vaccinating people 75 and older with those 65 to 74 and those with high-risk conditions next on tap to receive the vaccines.

People in congregate settings will be vaccinated on a parallel timeline, state officials said.

“Governor (Ned) Lamont has made vaccinating staff and residents at congregate facilities, including our state correctional facilities, a priority in Phase 1b, running in parallel to the general public phases,” David Bednarz, a spokesman for Lamont, said. “Plans continue to be finalized to get started with DOC vaccinations soon and we expect to have more details available tomorrow.”

The agency has been working with the state Department of Public Health and the Comptroller’s Office to form an education and operational plan to get as many staff and inmates vaccinated as quickly as possible, Karen Martucci, director of External Affairs for the DOC, said.

“Commissioner Quiros fully supports getting as many front line DOC employees vaccinated as soon as possible,” Martucci said.

In the meantime, staffing shortages are not unusual for agencies that operate 24-hours-a-day to maintain public safety, Martucci said. “This is the case even prior to the pandemic.”

Martucci said over the past week, “nearly 90% of the cumulative overtime at all 14 correctional facilities was voluntary.”

The unions are pressing the agency to set a start date to get employees who deal directly with inmates vaccinated. 

“The department keeps telling us that vaccines are coming, and that they will provide a list of employees eligible to receive vaccines,” said Collin Provost, a correction officer and the president of AFSCME Local 391. “We were supposed to have that information last week. Instead we were told to continue waiting. DOC frontline staff don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Howard, who has been outspoken in pointing out that the agency has been struggling to adequately deal with COVID-19 since the pandemic started in March, is now on seven medications to deal with his enlarged heart. He gets fatigued easily, whether it’s while playing with his son or working a 16-hour shift because of mandatory overtime requirements due to the number of people out sick. He has been told by his doctor that he may have permanent heart damage.

“My cardiologist said this is something I will always deal with, and that my life may never be the same,” Howard said. “With the chronic understaffing, you go into work knowing that you more than likely are working 16 hours.”

“You know your immune system is being compromised not only with COVID in the prisons but lack of sleep,” Howard added.

He’s now worried that if he doesn’t get the vaccine soon, he’ll end up contracting COVID a second time, Howard said. “I am frustrated beyond words with the lackadaisical approach from the DOC,” he said.

When Ligi went back to work after being bedridden for three weeks, she saw her “fellow co-workers dropping like flies.” “Some of them ended up in the ICU,” Ligi said.  She still suffers from chronic fatigue and headaches, Ligi said.

Since they are continually short-staffed, everyone is working harder, she said. “The lack of sleep and long hours are probably a huge factor as to why so many of us never fully recovered,” Ligi said.

Reyes-Greaves was terrified that her husband and son would also become sick after she contracted the virus right after Christmas. Many employees have stayed away from their families out of concern they would spread the disease, she said.

“I feel we should have had the vaccine already,” Reyes-Greaves said. “We are essential employees and we do not get the choice or the opportunity to stay home or work from home. Our daily lives include the constant risk and exposure to this virus.”