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Prison officer with COVID-19 told to return to work

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Your Postmasters: Jordan Wolman
December 14, 2020
Note: Our newsletter provider had an outage this morning, hence the late note! Our apologies, and you can expect the trains will be back on time tomorrow.

Prison protocol, vaccine rollout unknowns, lawsuit denied, staffing scramble, sauerkraut ice cream, and the show of the year. Good luck, it's Monday.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections told an officer who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was still symptomatic to report back to work, in contradiction of federal guidance and a doctor's note, records show. 

The correctional officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, tested positive in November and was scheduled to return Dec. 5, but his wife and children developed COVID-19 on Dec. 3 and he was still sick, according to a complaint obtained by Spotlight PA.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say symptomatic people should stay home, and if someone they live with tests positive, the isolation period should reset. The officer’s doctor recommended that the officer wait to go back to work until today.

The department, however, told the officer to return last Tuesday, adding that, “just because an employee was still having symptoms or who was still symptomatic didn’t mean they couldn’t come back to work,” according to emails and a complaint filed by the officer.

THE CONTEXT: As Pennsylvania has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases, so have the state's prisons. Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 10, 3,000 inmates tested positive, compared to less than 400 in the seven months prior. 

Prisoners’ rights groups say that outside staff is the only way to explain how the virus is penetrating prison walls. Deaths among prisoners due to COVID-19 is also on the rise, with most occurring within the past month or so.

As of Dec. 10, 1,747 staff members have tested positive. Staffers are not required to report positive test results, thereby making the number of infections likely far higher.

The surge has caught the attention of the state, which allocated $176,400 for corrections to hire more staff in an effort to help offset the number of people calling out of work.

John Eckenrode, vice president of the union representing the corrections officers, said at least one other corrections officer was also told to come back earlier than their doctor’s recommendation.

“There are some institutions where our members are working double shifts multiple days a week, and they're not getting their days off,” Eckenrode said. “They're concerned for their own health and safety, concerned for the health and safety of the people that they love when they go home.”


“The state should be paying attention to what they are sending out. It was their mistake, and I’ve already spent all the money on food and rent. How am I going to pay it back?”

— Olive Stewart, a 56-year-old immigrant who was laid off from a school in Philadelphia, on mistakes on the part of states — including Pennsylvania — in overpaying unemployment claimants during the pandemic

POST IT: Neal W. snapped this breathtaking scene from the garden of the Frank Lloyd Wright "Kentuck Knob" property in Dunbar. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.
BIG UNKNOWNS: The first shipments of the FDA-approved Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will go to states Monday. Pennsylvania has not disclosed how many doses are anticipated or exactly how the vaccine will be allocated, the Post-Gazette reports.

DENIED: In what President Donald Trump described as "the big one," the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by Texas and other mostly Republican states that sought to invalidate the election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Reuters reports. Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, (R., Lancaster) filed a brief in favor of the suit on Thursday.

CLOSED FOR GOOD: The for-profit juvenile detention center at the center of the "kids for cash" scandal has closed, The Citizens' Voice reports. Two county judges and a former co-owner of PA Child Care, which closed voluntarily in November, were convicted as part of a scheme to sentence children to harsh sentences in order to line their own pockets. 

STAFFING SCRAMBLE: Nursing homes in western Pennsylvania are increasingly relying on outside help to care for residents as COVID-19 cases again climb. TribLIVE reports that one nursing home chain has trained roughly a dozen corporate office workers to serve as temporary nurse aides.

LAW AND DISORDER: A federal judge has thrown out a suit that claimed Pennsylvania's mask mandate and contact tracing program are unconstitutional, the Associated Press reports. At the same time, several restaurants across the state plan to disobey Gov. Tom Wolf's three-week ban on indoor dining.
» THERE ARE ONLY 14 LEFT: Support essential local journalism and knock someone off your shopping list by becoming a member now.

Any amount makes a difference, but if you contribute $15/month or $180/year, you'll get this exclusive tote bag. Congrats to Kathleen W., Lynne M., and Jennifer R. for claiming totes Friday and over the weekend.
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF: A major investigation by PennLive and Spotlight PA last week highlighted how some local Pa. judges enjoy short work days and easy weeks despite good pay and benefits. Now, you can look up the judges in your county to see how often they are in court compared to others.

ELECTORAL COLLEGE DAY: Today, Pennsylvania's electors will meet in Harrisburg to certify President-elect Joe Biden's win for what feels like the 100th time. Who are these electors you keep hearing about? We've got you covered.

SUCH SWEET SORROW: The always pleasant Pennsylvania Treasury Twitter account, which gained notoriety for its humor and sass, has closed up shop. The account sent a farewell message Saturday, and just like that, was deactivated. Democratic Treasurer Joe Torsella lost his bid for re-election.

IT'S BAAAAACK: Urban Churn in Harrisburg is back with the most Pennsylvania dessert ever: sauerkraut ice cream. "The end result isn’t cold sauerkraut, but instead something that tastes closer to buttermilk," according to its creator Adam Brackbill. Honestly? Into it.

'TIS THE SEASON: I consider myself a Pennsylvania expert, but this is the first year I've heard about Easton's "Peace Candle," a 106-foot tall seasonal tower with a universal message. It got me thinking about the many weird and wonderful items different towns across the state drop on New Year's Eve. It's hard to pick my favorite, but it's probably the Kennett Square mushroom.

EYES TO THE SKY: If you missed the show late Sunday night, fear not, you'll have another chance tonight to see the Geminids. At the peak of this meteor shower, and with visible skies permitting, up to 150 meteors could be visible in just an hour
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out the winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Love the scrambler? Make a donation to help us end 2020 strong.

Friday's answer: Cacophony

Congrats to our weekly winner: Jill A-S

Congrats to our daily winners: Bob R., Art W., John C., Chip K., Chris W., Rebecca A., Susan D., Steve D., Robert K., Irene R., Mary Ellen T., Lynne E., Bruce B., Deb N., Carol D., Bill C., Kim C., Edward M., Patricia R., Michael B., Sherri A., Tracey C., John H., Theodore W., Jarrod B., Tish M., Heidi B., Bruce F., Mary Ann H., Doug W., Bruce B., George S., Beth T., Darcy M., Patricia M., David W., Matthew M., Chris M., Jeffrey S., Ron P., Kathleen M., Joel S., and Bruce F.
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