Guards upset over lack of vaccination plan in prisons
Connecticut's unionized prison guards expressed anger Wednesday over what they say is the lack of a plan to vaccinate them against COVID-19.
Jody Barr, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4, said the union was told there would be a plan to vaccinate prison employees by early January, but they have yet to hear when they might get the vaccine, or how it will be distributed to them.
“The department has not asked the correction officers how many of them are willing to take it,” Barr said. “And without knowing how many vaccines you are going to need, how can they have a plan to distribute it?”
Correction officers are among the essential workers in the state's group “1B,” making them eligible for the vaccine.
But the governor's office has said that, because it is receiving only about 46,000 doses a week for those getting a first shot of the two-dose regimen, it is limiting appointments for the time being to people over the age of 75.
Appointments are expected to be expanded in about two weeks to those over 65. Only after those people are vaccinated will appointments be opened to those with preexisting medical conditions and essential workers.
The state has said it has begun vaccinating those living in congregate settings on a parallel track.
Angel Quiros, the acting Correction Department commissioner, sent a memo to staff Wednesday saying the state expects to begin giving shots in early February to both staff and prisoners.
Correction Department spokesperson Karen Martucci said her department continues to work with the Department of Public Health and Comptroller’s Office on a plan that will allow it to “efficiently vaccinate as many staff members and inmates as quickly as possible.”
AFSCME said that 1,068 of its members working in the prisons have contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic started.
The department said 271 staff members are currently recovering after being infected with the virus.
Sean Howard, the president of union local at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, said he developed what his doctors tell him likely will be a lifelong heart condition as a result of contracting COVID-19.
“I feel staff safety is not the priority of our leaders,” he said. “I am frustrated beyond words with the lackadaisical approach from the DOC. I worry about getting COVID a second time.”
In other coronavirus-related news:
COMMUTER RAIL CHANGES
The continued low ridership numbers on Metro-North Railroad, especially traffic from Connecticut into New York City, is prompting state Department of Transportation officials to consider possible changes to commuter rail service in the state.
“We’re not going to hesitate to adjust and restructure our routes to meet the new expectations of riders,” said Richard Andreski, the DOT’s bureau chief of public transportation, told members of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee on Wednesday.
However, Andreski acknowledged that DOT also anticipates there will be increased demand in certain areas of the state.
“One of the things that I think is going to happen with public transportation is that high-density services, where we have significant ridership, significant demand, we can offer high-frequency services. That’s where public transportation will thrive,” he said. “Some of our lighter density markets where we have less frequent service, that’s where we’re going to be looking to these service alternatives (such as ride-hailing and local transit district buses).”
While rail traffic within Connecticut has increased somewhat since the height of the pandemic-related business closures, DOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said the number of commuters traveling into New York City still remains only 12% of normal ridership.
Giulietti said commuter rail occupancy rates remain low in other states as well. But he said there’s a “strong belief” that more people will begin riding the rails as their ability to get the COVID-19 vaccine improves.
“I firmly believe that all the signs are, as things start to progress, we’re going to see it coming back,” he said. “But it’s not going to be rapid and it’s not going to be easy.”
The state has been able to use federal coronavirus relief funds to help make up the lost revenue from rail fares and continue running the service throughout the pandemic.
PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY
Democratic legislative leaders on Wednesday rejected a request by their Republican colleagues to hold a meeting of the Public Health Emergency Committee to act on Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's recent extension of Connecticut's public health emergency for COVID-19 until April 20.
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said ending Lamont's extension would risk federal money coming to the state.
“Connecticut is currently receiving hundreds of millions of federal dollars because we are in a state of emergency. If that ends we risk missing out on hundreds of millions more. There is also a potential risk for losing priority for vaccines,” Looney and his colleagues said in a joint statement.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, called the decision “outrageous" and accused the Democrats of mischaracterizing “our reasonable request for a discussion about moving the legislature to a place where it can collaborate with the governor in managing our state’s pandemic response.”
As of Wednesday, Connecticut was close to surpassing 7,000 COVID-associated deaths, with 6,976 recorded — an increase of 42 since Tuesday.
Connecticut’s attorney general says he wants new laws to better combat price gouging during the pandemic.
William Tong, a Democrat, said that current price gouging statutes in Connecticut apply only to retail sales; do not adequately define price gouging; and do not clearly state that the laws apply to leases and rental items. He said those holes in the law have made it tougher to go after people who take advantage of severe shortages in items such as personal protective equipment and essential goods like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
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