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Allegheny County Jail officials refuse to comment on potential staff shortage due to vaccine mandate

The Allegheny County Jail could face a worsening staff shortage as a result of a county employee vaccine mandate.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The Allegheny County Jail could face a worsening staff shortage as a result of a county employee vaccine mandate.

About 36% of the employees at the Allegheny County Jail have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19. And with less than a month to go before a county employee vaccine mandate kicks in, jail administrators refused to comment Thursday on how the jail would address those who refuse to get vaccinated.

At the regular meeting of the jail’s oversight board, members asked warden Orlando Harper how the jail plans to confront a potential staffing shortage if the more than 200 employees who have not yet begun a vaccine course continue to refuse.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who sits on the oversight board but was not present at Thursday’s meeting, is requiring county workers under his purview to provide proof of vaccination by Dec. 1. The policy, which was announced in September, extends a requirement established in August that all new employees were required to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.

According to Chief Deputy Warden Laura Williams, 211 employees have either not yet been vaccinated or have not submitted proof of vaccination. She said 174 of those employees have direct contact with incarcerated individuals.

Ten employees are in the process of completing their vaccination requirement, Williams said.

When asked what the jail plans to do if unvaccinated employees do not comply by Dec. 1, administrators said they would not comment publicly on the matter, calling it a personnel matter.

Though an individual isn’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second dose, the policy requires employees to receive their second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine — or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — by Dec. 1.

Anyone in violation of the requirement who does not meet a legally required exception will face termination.

The Moderna vaccine regimen requires 28 days to complete, meaning staff who received their first shot of that vaccine after Nov. 1 would not be in compliance with the county’s deadline.

The mandate could exacerbate existing staffing problems

The jail has often been criticized for failing to maintain a full staff. Last December, Public Source reported that employees had been raising concerns about staffing levels throughout 2020.

The county’s website lists 30 open positions as of Thursday at the jail. It’s unclear how many other positions are being covered by temporary workers.

More than half of the open positions are nurses, pharmacy technicians or substance use counselors. The jail is currently seeking a director and multiple assistant directors of nursing.

Williams cited budgetary restraints as one reason the jail hasn’t been able to attract more medical employees.

“We’re competing with a lot of different health care entities in the Pittsburgh area,” Williams said, but the jail has been able to increase pay rates for several nursing positions.

If approved by County Council, Executive Fitzgerald’s 2022 fiscal plan would increase the jail’s budget by more than $12 million. More than $7 million of that increase would go toward personnel costs.

But it’s not clear that an increase in pay will be enough to fill the vacant positions.

“There are nationwide shortages, and have been, in the health care field as well as in the field of corrections,” Williams said.

Oversight board members called an executive session Thursday, which is closed to the public, to discuss staffing shortages and how pandemic mitigation measures could evolve.

Many 2020 mitigation measures remain in effect

The jail has been on what administrators call a “23-and-1” lockdown since March of 2020 as a COVID-19 mitigation measure. This means those incarcerated are in their cells for up to 23 hours per day.

Oversight board member and County Councilor Bethany Hallam has publicly asked jail administrators when this policy would end at multiple recent board meetings. It has been in effect despite rising and falling case counts outside the jail.

At Thursday’s meeting, Warden Orlando Harper credited the lockdown with the jail’s low COVID-19 death rate.

“We had one death due to COVID… we have done a wonderful job during this pandemic with the measures we have taken place,” Harper said. A 48-year-old inmate died at a hospital in September.

Other comparable county jails have lifted pandemic lockdowns and resumed visitation. The Dauphin, York and Lancaster County lockups all allow in-person visitation.

Harper said the jail will monitor vaccination rates among children before resuming visitation. When asked about allowing visitation by vaccinated individuals, Harper said he would consult the county health department.

“Maybe they can give me some guidance as to what the numbers should be when we start visitation back at the jail,” he said. “The target date is as soon as possible. As soon as we can see that these COVID cases in the community [are] reduced.”

Harper has previously declined to outline a plan to resume visitation including how case rates or vaccinations factor into allowing in-person visits.

Harper did cite staff safety as one reason to continue prohibiting visits.

“[Visitors] pass employees when they come in. Therefore that virus can be passed on to the employees who work on the different pods… so that’s the issue,” Harper said.

Williams argued visitors would be in close contact with each other which could present a risk for infection.

“We as an institution stand for the safety of all, and that includes those that visit our institution as well,” she said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.