Greene County, Columbia County leaders call out NYS prison system claiming mishandled COVID cases


CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden says he shared some choice words in a call with NYS Tuesday. Groden says he thinks the state dropped the ball when it comes to COVID cases in prisons. His perfect example — a positive staff member at Greene Correctional Facility reportedly spread COVID-19 to their spouse who works in Columbia County.

“This is our worst fear, we brought this up with the control group a month ago, and now bang, it’s happened,” Groden says in a phone call with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

As NEWS10 reported, a massive outbreak came to light October 13 and there are still 86 infected inmates and an unknown number of staff at the state prison, according to the latest update on the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision website.

We now know there are 26 sick nursing home residents and three infected staff at the Ghent Assisted Living facility inside Whittier Place. That spike likely ties back to one couple who both test positive — one spouse works at Greene Correctional, the other is a custodian at the nursing home, according to Columbia County Public Health Director Jack Mabb.

“For quite a while there last week he was the only case among the staff, we feel pretty strongly about that at this point,” Mabb says of the infection’s possible source.

Groden says on top of all that, another infected Greene Correctional staff member also exposed their child at Greeneville Elementary School and the whole school shut down Monday.

The NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confirms Greene Correctional staff got their first tests done courtesy of Greene County staff Monday afternoon. Groden says they waited too long and testing state employees shouldn’t fall on his shoulders.

“They should be taking care of their own employees! Why am I taking care of state employees? Who don’t even live in my county? This is wrong. The state is not handling this outbreak at the prison properly,” he says in frustration.

Mabb says for him, it’s been like pulling teeth to get info from DOCCS, even after 16 staff tested positive at the Brookwood Secure Center for Juveniles. Now it’s even worse with a COVID spike trickling into one of the most vulnerable populations in his county.

“As a state agency, they need to be more transparent. Contact tracing is difficult enough as it is without getting cooperation,” he says.

Mabb says at the end of the day for him, it comes down to whether or not all state agencies are being as vigilant with testing, sanitizing, and PPE as they claim to be.

“None of us want to do it, we’re all sick and tired of it, but we’ve got probably eight more months of it, and I think we just have to hang in there,” he says.

Groden says his biggest worry for Greene County’s future is how the spike at the prison will affect families and businesses in the community. Governor Cuomo recently announced movie theaters could reopen, starting October 23. However, Groden says Greene County is excluded from that reopening, in part due to the case numbers inflated by the outbreak at Greene Correctional Facility.

“I’m fearful if this thing gets worse, the governor may declare a hotspot and walk back other businesses that have been limping along in their 50 percent capacity reopening,” Groden says. “We’re a small, rural county, we can’t survive that way.”

“The governor requires nursing homes to test their staff once a week because they are dealing with a confined population and an infirm population. He doesn’t require the staff in a prison to be tested, but who is more infirm and more isolated than an inmate?” he goes on.

Groden says he plans to hold a press conference Wednesday to formally call on Governor Cuomo to remove prison COVID cases from county numbers reported to the state and measured for reopening metrics.

“The staff, they are commuting from five or six surrounding counties. Not all of them live in Greene County, and the inmates, as far as I know, the inmates will not be attending any movie theaters this weekend in Greene County. They’re in jail, in prison, so those cases should not be included in the overall count,” he explains.

He also calls on NYS to mandate and provide testing for prison staff. He says although his small department of five nurses tested 97 Greene Correctional staff Monday, that’s only a fraction of the employees and his area doesn’t have the resources to test and return results as quickly as such a large facility needs.

“I don’t have a budget of some of our larger counties. My public health department is made up of five or six nurses who have been working seven days a week, non-stop since March. They’ve missed Mother’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, July 4 and we’re already scheduling them for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s. We have no choice because we need to be here for people, but we’re exhausted. The state is not helping. As a matter of fact, they’re hurting our efforts,” Groden says.

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