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Conn. university FD aids volunteer EMS in transporting inmates with COVID-19

The University of Connecticut Fire Department stepped in when the Suffield Volunteer Ambulance Association became overwhelmed with a spike in cases at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution

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The University of Connecticut Fire Department is aiding the Suffield Volunteer Ambulance Association in transporting inmates with COVID-19 after a spike in cases at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.

Photo/IAFF Local S-15 UConn Fire-Rescue

Adam Hushin
Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.

SUFFIELD, Conn. — When the town’s volunteer ambulance association became overwhelmed with transporting sick inmates to local hospitals due to a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases at the local MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, everyone agreed something had to be done.

In the end, it was the University of Connecticut Fire Department that stepped in to assist with those inmate transports to ease the burden on the ambulance association.

It was in September that state officials decided that all inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 would be transferred to a medical isolation unit at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution located at 1153 East St. South, according to First Selectwoman Melissa Mack.

Mack said she was not entirely pleased with that decision.

“I told the Department of Correction months ago that I was not comfortable with the unilateral decision and burden they placed on Suffield and I would be monitoring the situation closely,” Mack said.

When an inmate’s condition worsened to the point of requiring more intensive medical care, the town’s volunteer ambulance association was responsible for transporting the inmate to a hospital for further treatment.

After months of this operation, which included a severe spike in COVID-19 cases among the prison population after the holidays, Mack said the volunteer ambulance association workers began experiencing fatigue and burnout.

Mack said she was also concerned the volunteer ambulance association might not be able to meet the increasing needs of the town of Suffield with these increased responsibilities.

John Spencer, chief of the town’s volunteer ambulance association, said his staff has been answering the call since the beginning of the pandemic, but admitted it was becoming difficult.

“It was a significant strain, especially during the spike,” Spencer said. “I think it all just added to the already accumulating stress and burnout.”

Andrius Banevicius, public information officer for the state Department of Correction, said that at the height of the spike the medical isolation unit at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution “was caring for 280 symptomatic COVID-positive inmates.”

Spencer said that in December alone his staff made more than 40 transports of COVID sick inmates to the hospital, sometimes making up to four or five trips a day with no break.

“At no point were we really complaining, but we knew we needed help” Spencer said.

Mack said she began reaching out to the state for help in the days leading up to the new year. Soon after, the University of Connecticut Fire Department stepped up to help out, and entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Correction Department to assist in transporting inmates.

UConn Fire Chief William Perez said his department has a great working relationship with the Correction Department and the volunteer ambulance association, so it was an easy decision to help out.

“Our people were not only willing to help because that’s what we do, but also because we work so well with them,” Perez said.

Beginning on Jan. 16, the UConn Fire Department began operating as the primary source of transport for inmates on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Perez said.

He said he’s in the business of helping people, but it’s even more important during a pandemic.

“With this crisis we’re supposed to help each other out,” Perez said. “That’s how we get through it.”

Mack said she’s pleased with the willingness of everyone involved to work together to find a solution to a shared problem.

“The arrangement has already paid dividends,” Mack said.

Banevicius echoed this sentiment, adding that the work is still ongoing.

“We have great collaboration with the town of Suffield, Suffield ambulance and now UConn fire,” Banevicus said. “We have kept the lines of communication open to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the inmate population recovering within the specialized unit while not putting a strain on the needs of the town.”

Mack wanted to make it clear that the volunteer ambulance association met and continues to meet 100 percent of its obligation to the town under these extraordinary circumstances.

“I want them to get a boatload of credit because they deserve it,” Mack said.


(c)2021 Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.