Union Sounds Alarm Following COVID-19 Outbreak at Western Md. Juvenile Facility

Masks
pexels.com photo

AFSCME Council 3 representatives sounded alarm bells Thursday as they reported a COVID-19 outbreak at the Department of Juvenile Services’ Backbone Youth Center in Garrett County.

“At this point, because of the Department’s dangerous understaffing and lack of protocol, many of the staff and youth awaiting test results have not been properly quarantining awaiting their results. In effect, risking continued transmission of COVID-19 in this facility to the youth and staff,” AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said in a statement.

In a news release, AFSCME said that the Swanton, Md., facility has reported “10 new positive cases [among staff] in the last 24 hours including the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the facility.” The organization also stated that there are no supervisors on the facility’s campus at this time.

Since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) mandated universal testing for youth in the agency’s facilities in June, the Department of Juvenile Services has performed 1,272 tests, 16 of which yielded positive results.

The agency relies on staff self-reports after they receive tests out in the community. Since June, 102 Department of Juvenile Services workers were reported positive for COVID-19.

As of Thursday, the agency reported only three current confirmed infections among youths and 40 among staff ― nine of which are from Backbone Youth Center. The agency website states that one staff member at the facility has recovered.

AFSCME represents 32 members on staff at the Garrett County facility at this time. Overall, the union represents 2,000 Department of Juvenile Services staff.

“Currently, there are just six frontline staff on campus in charge of 14 youth” at Backbone Youth Center, said Moran.

DJS spokesman Eric Solomon told Maryland Matters in an email that the agency has a plan in place should staffing shortages arise.

DJS has been prepared and ready for a possible shortage in staffing,” said Solomon. “To account for this, DJS has trained 160 community-based staff to fill facility posts if the need arises.”

In a follow-up email, Solomon said that the department is meeting its 1:8 staff ratio at Backbone Youth Center.

Between its detained and committed state-run programs, the Department of Juvenile services currently has 186 youths in its custody.

Children are tested upon their arrival to their assigned facility, before they are moved out of the admission quarantine space, prior to their transfer to other facilities, after they may have been exposed to a COVID-positive individual, and if they appear symptomatic.

Moran said he is “deeply disturbed” by what his union members are reporting out of the agency, and is calling on Hogan and Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed to reopen the Garrett Children’s Center, which was closed in the spring, as a quarantine facility.

He is also asking that the department supply staffers with the appropriate amount of personal protective equipment.

In his email, Solomon said that all youth and staff are given masks, which they are required to wear at all times and are “swapped out” on a regular basis. In addition, he told Maryland Matters that on-site staff and medical providers are also provided with gowns, gloves, face shields and sanitizer.

Moran takes issue with the fact that his members are not given N95 masks ― especially considering that they work in a congregate-care facility.

“It is unacceptable for staff to be working in these facilities without N95 masks,” he said. “This is not safe.”

The Council 3 president also expressed concern about the facility’s location, when hospitals in Garrett and Allegany counties have come dangerously close to reaching their capacity in recent days.

“The lack of action is only worsening the outbreak and risking unnecessary death of the youth and our members,” Moran said.

[email protected]

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.