7 Florida prison employees test positive for coronavirus

TALLAHASEE, Fla. – Seven Florida Department of Corrections employees who work at separate facilities across the state have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, agency officials said late Friday.

Agency officials would not release the positions held by the infected prison workers, but in a statement said the employees either worked for the corrections department or one of its contractors at five prisons and two probation offices.

The staffers work at Century Correctional Institute in Escambia County; Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade County; Florida Women’s Reception Center and Marion Correctional Institution, both in Ocala; Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County; and community corrections regional offices in Lake Butler and West Palm Beach.

The employees will not return to work until they have been cleared by health officials, the agency said.

An investigation is underway to identify inmates and staff who may need to go into isolation after coming into close contact with the employees infected with the highly contagious virus, officials said in the statement.

While the number of people exposed to the employees is unknown, the department confirmed Tuesday that three workers at the Marion Correctional Institution have been placed in self-isolation after being exposed by an infected employee there.

There are no confirmed coronavirus cases within the inmate population as of 9 a.m. Friday, officials said.

Any inmates who show COVID-19 symptoms or who have been in contact with an employee who tested positive for the virus will be placed in medical isolation, according to the department. Symptomatic inmates will be isolated in their dormitories until they are medically cleared, and local health officials will determine whether those inmates need to be tested, corrections officials said.

A corrections department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for information about how many inmates or workers have been tested statewide.

But corrections officials said they are working with the Florida Department of Health to monitor and contain potential outbreaks in the prison system, which has 143 facilities, more than 23,000 employees and roughly 96,000 inmates --- including thousands of elderly offenders.

To prevent the virus from spreading, the department has suspended face-to-face inmate visitations, restricted the intake of county jail inmates and started screening anyone who enters a correctional institution.

Only employees who are considered “essential” are allowed to come to work, the department said.

As of Thursday, essential employees included some educators who have been asked to “provide as much education programming as possible” while programs are temporarily adjusted, according to a memo obtained by The News Service of Florida.

“Programming will not only keep our students engaged and their brains active, it will serve to decrease the boredom inherent with restrictions of this scope and scale. We see it as our role to promote the safety and security of our institutions by providing positive activity options for our resident population,” officials wrote to employees on Thursday.

State workers who have to stay home because they have COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever or cough, are pushing the DeSantis administration to give them administration leave, instead of forcing them to use their own accrued paid time off.

During a press conference Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis did not appear to have a full grasp of the type of work flexibility offered to corrections employees with COVID-19 symptoms.

When asked by reporters if it was reasonable to require symptomatic corrections workers to use their paid time off to self-quarantine, DeSantis said, “I don’t know if those reports are true.”

Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch “is a very reasonable guy, so I would talk to him to see whether that is true or not,” the governor said Friday.