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'We are pretty much fending for ourselves here:' East Moline Correctional Center has a COVID-19 outbreak
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'We are pretty much fending for ourselves here:' East Moline Correctional Center has a COVID-19 outbreak

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Olegario Banuelos started feeling sick Sept. 6. It began with body aches, fever and a headache. 

Banuelos, 45, is an inmate at the East Moline Correctional Center. In a phone call, Banuelos alleged correctional officers have not been keeping their face masks on and are not properly using PPE, including gowns and gloves. He said most officers kept masks down around their chins, leaving their mouths and noses exposed. 

Prison officials disputed his charge, which came as a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility has sickened more than a quarter of inmates and 11 staff members. The number of cases has spiked in the last 10 days. No one has died, according to Rock Island County Health Department officials.

"If one of their supervisors passes by the unit, they'll put on the mask real quick," Banuelos said. "But if no one is around, they won't wear it.

"The majority of (officers) don't wear them properly. Since this started it's been like this. We'll get yelled at if we don't have our masks on, but they can walk around (without masks.) They are not being cautious."

Banuelos has been incarcerated at the East Moline facility since October 2019. He is serving a six-year sentence for his role in possessing and selling stolen vehicles. He is eligible for parole in Dec. 2021.

Before Banuelos tested positive for coronavirus, he alleges on several occasions he witnessed correctional officers exit the COVID-19 unit adjacent to his, and then enter his unit without changing PPE or washing hands.

Banuelos was told he tested positive for coronavirus Sept. 8. He is among the 267 inmates who have tested positive at the facility, which has a population of 1,055. According to the latest data provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections, EMCC has the second highest number of incarcerated individuals with confirmed cases in the state, behind Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.

The number of cases at EMCC has jumped by dozens in the past 10 days, not including 11 staff who also tested positive. Stateville has 115 staff members who have tested positive.

EMCC is currently on medical quarantine, with no visitors allowed. 

Banuelos alleges correctional officers did not take him seriously when he told them he was sick. 

"All this week I stayed in bed all day. My body was real sore," he said. "I have a fever every day and diarrhea. And now I still have fever at nighttime and at daytime I might be OK. But it varies."

Cody Dornes, an East Moline correctional officer and president of AFSCME Local 46, says correctional officers do wear face masks and proper PPE. 

"Every time I'm walking around, everyone is wearing a mask," Dornes said. "In the quarantine units, everyone is wearing their full PPE. There is hand sanitizer at every single officer station and at almost every single desk. I can attest that every time I've seen staff walking around, everybody is wearing their mask. We've been doing this since March. There are staff who have to wear masks and PPE for up to 12 to 18 hours a day. 

"We've seen an outbreak here for months," Dornes said. "It keeps bouncing around. What did everybody expect when we decided to open up the state and the country? Cases were bound to happen. I think our staff has been doing the best they can."

Banuelos said all 94 inmates in his bloc were given coronavirus tests on Friday, Sept. 4. The next day, the inmates were retested after being told the initial tests were faulty. Two days later, on Sunday, he maintains all of the inmates tested were reporting symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Lindsey Hess, public information officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said the EMCC has an appointed safety officer who is responsible for identifying potentially hazardous situations associated with COVID-19.

"The safety officer manages quality assurance of proper personal protective equipment use by staff, deep cleaning routines, temperature checks and screening measures," Hess said. 

"A new swab is used for each COVID-19 test that is administered; swabs are never reused. To manage the outbreak at East Moline, the department is utilizing point prevalence testing in asymptomatic and potentially exposed offenders. As part of this surveillance, offenders who test negative are retested seven days later."

Hess said staff are closely monitoring all men in custody to ensure their health and safety and temperatures are checked twice daily.

In mid-March, the prison stopped allowing visitors and stopped receiving transfers of inmates from other facilities in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus. Inmates were stopped from eating together and exercising in the outdoor yard. Banuelos said meals were initially being delivered by correctional officers to cells, but when he was moved to the COVID-19 positive unit, other sick inmates were delivering food to him and the others. 

Banuelos said the only medical care he was receiving was Tylenol and getting his temperature taken. Until the COVID-19 diagnosis, he was in his own cell. Banuelos has a medical order for a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help with sleep apnea. The machine is loud when in use and requires distilled water for proper use. 

After his diagnosis, Banuelos was moved to a COVID-19-positive unit and now shares a cell with another sick inmate. He is not being given distilled water for his CPAP and hesitates to use it at night, he said. 

"Now I'm with another person. I don't use my machine because (the other inmate) is coughing above me and my machine would just breathe in what he is coughing out," Banuelos said. "So I haven't been using my CPAP machine. They keep moving sick inmates into the same unit. When you start getting better from this, they're bringing people who are infected with coronavirus into the unit. Everybody is mixed up. 

"We are pretty much fending for ourselves here. We don't get any type of healthy food, even though we're sick. We eat the same dry food; we can't buy stuff from the commissary because they don't allow us to go. The water is really horrible, and they don't sell bottled water in the store for us to purchase."

Dornes said the food served to inmates met the state nutritional requirements and most staff also ate the same meals. 

Banuelos alleges information was being withheld from inmates and questions were not always answered when asked. He said about 11 inmates had been transported to local hospitals as their conditions worsened.

"They don't tell us much of anything," he said. "I've heard ambulances come in and out in the middle of the night." 

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