Department of Juvenile Services Worker Says Contact Tracing Falls Short in Agency Facilities

Centers for Disease Control graphic

As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to compound, the state government is taking steps to track the virus’ spread.

Earlier this week, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) announced that Maryland had inked a contract with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, which he said is set to “quadruple” the state’s contact tracing efforts. 

In partnership with the Maryland Department of Health, the research center is to aggressively track the spread of the virus in the state, including performing expedited testing and close monitoring not just for people who are infected but for those in their inner circles. 

The governor also announced heavy-duty contact tracing and testing initiatives surrounding poultry plants and nursing homes — both of which have been hot spots for COVID-19 cases in recent days.

Beyond nursing homes and poultry plants, there are intense and dynamic outbreaks of the virus in detention centers, and advocates believe the state needs to do more to protect vulnerable inmates and facility employees.

Maryland Matters recently spoke over the phone with a woman who works at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. She believes she became infected with COVID-19 because the contact tracing methods used by the Department of Juvenile Services were inadequate at her facility.

During a briefing with the House Judiciary Committee in April, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed described in detail steps the state agency takes when a positive case is reported. 

“Whether it’s a positive case of youth and staff the, the very next thing that we have to do, and really almost simultaneous with notifying folks, is contact tracing,” he said at the virtual briefing.

Abed told lawmakers that the department interviews the infected resident or staff member to determine where they may have been in the facility and who they may have come into contact with. Following interviews, the department reviews camera footage to identify people that may have interacted with the infected individual.

Once the camera footage is analyzed, Abed said that staff who have come into contact with a COVID-positive person are immediately contacted so they know they have potentially been exposed. 

Department employees who may not have come into contact with the individual are also to be notified of the facility’s confirmed case via messages sent through department managers and signs posted at the entryway. 

“While they may not have been potentially exposed to that particular youth or positive staff, we still need to notify them,” Abed said. 

The tracing begins as soon as a staffer or youth test positive for COVID-19,” said department spokesman Eric Solomon. “The facility superintendent as well as the medical team communicate with those who are positive and immediately notify others who may have been exposed, to prevent the further transmission of COVID-19.”

As of Friday afternoon, the Department of Juvenile Services was reporting 10 positive cases among its staff members — four others have recovered.

The department also had previously reported five infected youth, all of whom have recovered.

But while the Department of Juvenile Services may do contact tracing based on video footage, the case of the woman working at the Baltimore detention center suggests that the method is not always fool-proof, leaving some employees to slip through the cracks. 

One of six staff members who have been infected at the juvenile justice center, the woman asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.

She said that because the area where she works in the facility isn’t monitored by cameras, she wasn’t notified that she had come into contact with an infected individual five different times over an eight-hour shift in mid-April. 

“It’s not like they came by and said, ‘Hello,’” she said. “It’s not that simple.”

The woman, who is a member of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, said that the only required personal protective equipment where she works is surgical masks, “like a big tissue … with the little string on it.”

She explained that department employees are given a new mask every three days, but the presumed infected coworker that she came into contact with was not wearing a mask at all.

The union member said she notified her supervisors about the potential exposure as soon as she heard. They asked her if she was experiencing any symptoms. 

Days later, she found that she was: chills, night sweats, diarrhea, headaches and nausea. Everything but a fever.

She was tested on April 22 and received her confirmed positive result the following day. She’s been quarantined since being tested and had to move her family out of her home to limit their exposure.

The AFSCME member said no one from the department told her at all that she may have been exposed.

“I really didn’t care how, I just know they should have told me,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to overhear at the locker.”

“We want to be tested. They don’t have to say who, but they can say ‘You may have been exposed.’”

‘Severe inadequacies’ 

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said that members of his union who work in the state’s detention facilities are “working in literal Petri dishes.”

Moran said that there are “severe inadequacies” in the state’s contact tracing methods across all departments and that the government “need[s] to be collaborative” with their members when it comes to ironing out the details of the process.

“Our folks are first responders,” he said. 

Asked about its contact tracing protocol, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was fairly vague. 

At a virtual briefing with members of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, Secretary Robert L. Green explained that the agency is performing contact tracing through its contracted health care provider, Corizon, and members of the department’s staff.

“We begin contact tracing as soon as we are made aware that an inmate or staff person has tested positive for COVID-19,” said department spokesman Mark Vernarelli in an email. “A COVID-19 response team goes to work, speaking directly to those affected, working with the facilities to identify and communicate with all those affected as quickly as possible to limit the spread of the virus.”

At the last count released Monday, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reported 244 infections across inmates, corrections officers and department staff.

The state agency has reported four deaths — all men in their 50s and 60s — two of which occurred in the past two days.

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.