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Prison Guards Without PPE Are Endangering Lives At Yuma Hospital, Nurses Say

Health care workers at the Yuma Regional Medical Center say guards from state prisons accompanying COVID-19 positive inmates are endangering the lives of staff and patients by entering the hospital without proper personal protective equipment.

Corrigan Wright was employed as an intensive care nurse at the hospital. She said she has seen Arizona Department of Corrections Officers guarding inmates in the COVID-19 unit of the ICU while wearing only cloth masks.

“If they are wearing a mask, it's the masks with happy faces on them or Nike symbols,” not the hospital-grade, N95 masks that are required, Wright said. “We have signs all over the place saying that you can’t enter without the appropriate PPE, but these guards are in here, two at a time, with no masks on.”

Wright recalled one COVID-19 positive inmate she recently treated who was paralyzed and restrained to the hospital bed. She said two guards from the prison were sitting on either side of the bed.

“I told them they were not wearing the right masks, and the correctional officers said the cloth masks were all that the Department of Corrections would provide them with,” Wright said. “They had been sitting next to this COVID patient on a ventilator for almost 12 hours and I told them they had likely been exposed.”

“It’s almost like they were just doing what they were told and they had no choice, and I know that they can’t speak up,” Wright said of the correctional officers.

Wright said she asked hospital administrators to provide N95 masks for the guards, but was told that supplies were limited and could only be given to hospital staff.

After sending an email to hospital administrators about her concerns, Wright says she was told to drop the issue. Wright resigned from the hospital, saying the mask incident was part of a larger pattern of leadership failing to enforce COVID protocols.

A health care worker who is currently employed at Yuma Regional confirmed Wright’s accounts of the guards. KJZZ is not naming the employee because they fear retaliation.

“They were given gloves, gowns, and surgical masks but no N95,” the employee said of the correctional officers in the hospital. “I’ve seen guards in there with just surgical masks. And they sit in there right next to the patient for the whole time because that’s their job.”

The employee said they also asked administrators why it was acceptable for the guards to be in close proximity to COVID-19 patients without N95 masks.

“I was like ‘How is this ok?’ I personally feel worried for them because you’re exposing someone to the virus over a long period of time and you're not giving them adequate airborne isolation precautions,” the employee said. “Those guys have a pretty important job and they need to have adequate protection.”

“We see a basic foundation of infection control being overlooked,” they said. “That’s why the health care workers here are getting upset.”

Machele Headington, vice president marketing and communications for Yuma Regional Medical Center, said the hospital does not “make exceptions for the precautions we expect the DOC officers to follow.”

“Where an officer is witnessed not wearing appropriate PPE, we notify the warden and the issue is corrected,” Headington said. “To our knowledge there have been no further incidents of inappropriate PPE after notification to the warden.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections disputed the allegations from the health care workers.

“N95 Masks, eye protection, and gowns have been issued to all staff involved in inmate transportation, in providing inmate security while at hospitals, and when assigned to areas where COVID positive/symptomatic inmates are assigned,” the spokesperson said. “The expectation is for staff to wear appropriate PPE in these situations and supplies of N95 masks remain more than ample.”

The Yuma prison has experienced some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state prison system, and the warden of the prison recently died.

“The hospital is already so overburdened,” Wright said. “We have these protocols in place for a reason, but if the prisons keep ignoring them, it will just lead to more COVID infections. I’m really terrified about what’s going to happen in Yuma.”

→  Get The Latest News On COVID-19 In Arizona 

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.