PIERCE COUNTY , Wash. -- For the 270 correctional officers that work the jails in Pierce County, they said not enough is being done to protect them from COVID-19.
On Monday, the president of the Pierce County Corrections Guild issued a press release demanding the county and the Pierce County Sheriff's Department give them more Personal Protective Equipment or PPE.
“As Guild President, I have an obligation to protect the people who work at the jail. All I’m asking is for the County and the Sheriff’s Department to let us have the tools we already own to keep our people safe," said Lisa Shanahan, Guild President.
According to Shanahan, a stockpile of 2,200 N95 masks are sitting in storage and earmarked for jail staff. But it hasn't been distributed. The reason is unclear, she said.
“The only explanation I’ve been given is that our staff wearing masks would be ‘arbitrary’,” said Shanahan. “We’re literally dealing with the same people that are brought in by the deputies that the Sheriff’s department has issued N95 masks to. How is that ‘arbitrary’? How does that make any sense?”
The only masks that were available to corrections officers were cloth masks, made by good Samaritans, said Shanahan. But while she said the officers are grateful for the masks, they are nowhere near as protective as the N95 masks.
The call for more N95 masks for Pierce County corrections officers has forced them to sound the alarm against the county and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.
As of Monday, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Pierce County jails or its staff, according to department spokesperson, Detective Ed Troyer.
The Sheriff's Office runs the jails in Pierce County and according to Troyer, they are working hourly to try to get as much PPE as possible.
"Being in law enforcement, we’re not the tier 1 priority. Healthcare workers, nursing homes, where the COVID outbreaks are, are the priority," said Troyer. "We do have some N95 masks for some of our patrol deputies, but they’re not wearing them all of the time. They’re only going to put them on when there’s a possible exposure. As far as our corrections deputies go, we’d love to have a mask for everybody to throw away every day, it’s just not available."
According to Troyer, the masks that are available can't be sanitized either because healthcare workers are given priority for that. The department is also working on getting disposable masks for Pierce County inmates.
"It's a full-time job for our guys to try and make our people safe," said Troyer.
Pierce County corrections officers have been given more assignments, according to Shanahan and the need for PPE is dire. And that these officers have been waiting for a concrete plan since late February.
"The first thing they did was have us take the temperatures of the inmate workers," she said. "And one of the recommendations from the CDC was that anybody taking temperatures of any kind because you’re getting close to people is to have protective equipment on. Eye protection, a mask, a gown. We had none of those things,"
But for Shanahan, she's not waiting to get her officers masks. She said she was able to find and purchase hundreds of masks, that aren't N95, but offer better protection than cloth, she said.
She just hopes the County and the Department release the N95 masks soon.
“It would be one thing if there was no stockpile, but there is, we’re just not being allowed to use them. They’re kept just out of our hands. I don’t believe this is the intention, but it feels cruel. We have people who have pre-existing conditions. They are scared for their lives. We all are,” said Shanahan.