Covid-19: ‘My biggest nightmare’ says Waikato mayor after Spring Hill prison guard tests positive for coronavirus

  • General

Waikato district mayor Allan Sanson is hoping the Delta variant of Covid-19 has been ring-fenced to Spring Hill Correctional Facility after making an appearance in the region for the first time.

Sanson found out on Tuesday morning that a Spring Hill Corrections Facility staff member had tested positive.

“I wasn’t surprised, it’s probably been one of my biggest fears that something would jump across the Bombays into our part of the world.

“I think we have been exceptionally lucky up until now.

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“This is probably my biggest nightmare … the only difference with this, I would like to think, is that it’s at least contained within the prison, and its staff and doesn’t get out.”

A guard at Spring Hill Prison in north Waikato has tested positive for Covid-19.

Corrections’ regional commissioner for the central region Terry Buffery emailed all staff shortly after midday on Tuesday advising them of the positive case.

“Last night [Monday] we were advised that a staff member at Spring Hill Corrections Facility tested positive for Covid-19,” he wrote. “The staff member is fully vaccinated, and has not displayed any symptoms. It is important to note that no other site is impacted at the moment.”

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The guard, who lives in Auckland, “worked at the prison during the day on Saturday, and that evening was advised that he had a link to a location of interest. He was tested on Sunday and has been isolating since.

“As soon as we were advised of the staff member’s positive test on Monday night, we identified and contacted 23 staff who had close contact with the staff member while he was at work,” Buffery wrote.

“All have been advised to isolate and get tested in line with Ministry of Health advice. These staff will not come back to work until they have returned negative tests and been cleared by the Ministry of Health.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed the case at a press briefing at 1pm on Tuesday.

“I have not got the details … He was asymptomatic,” Ardern said.

There had been “rigorous record keeping” at the unit, which was inhabited by 123 people, she said.

”Residential environs are high-risk environments. Ultimately the people in that workplace are individuals that have had contact.”

Waikato will still move to alert level 3 along with the rest of the country south of Auckland despite the Spring Hill case, but Sanson admitted to wondering if the positive case had jeopardised that.

“I thought, with the health order coming in at midnight tonight … are they going to go back in and redo it this afternoon?

“They probably could have quite possibly grabbed the entire Waikato region because that was one of the options that was on the table last week.”

With Spring Hill staff living in the greater Waikato and Auckland, Sanson was aware this scenario was always probable.

“It’s probably been the one scary thing that we’ve had – that movement of essential people that have been coming out of Auckland – considering Auckland has been the epicentre of the outbreak.”

In his message to staff, Buffery said urgent measures were being taken.

“All of the men in the unit where the staff member worked have also been segregated for medical oversight in line with section 60 of the Corrections Act, and they will also be tested by our health staff. Anyone who has been recently transferred out of the unit will also be managed like this. Two men that have been released are being contacted and advised to isolate and get tested.

“The unit will now be operating as a quarantine unit. This means that all staff working in the unit will be wearing enhanced PPE, including masks, gloves, a gown and goggles when interacting with prisoners. The unit guardroom and shared spaces have been deep cleaned this morning, and this will be ongoing.

“We are in regular contact with Regional Public Health and are following all of their advice.”

Buffery went on to say they were “well-prepared” and have “put in place extensive plans to manage any risk to our staff or the men”.

“This includes the precautions we have been taking at alert level 4 to screen everyone coming into prison (including with the use of thermal cameras), shielding vulnerable prisoners, the use of PPE to protect everyone and the implementation of proximity detection cards to assist us with contact tracing.”

In a press release, prison director Scott Walker said all the affected staff would not be back at work until they had tested negative.

“I would like to acknowledge the staff member for doing all the right things when they were first notified of their connection to a location of interest and ensuring we were notified of the positive test result as soon as possible.

“I would also like to thank our staff for their professionalism and willingness to continue to carry out their essential work.

“The unit guardroom and shared spaces have been deep cleaned this morning, and this will continue regularly.

The unit is now operating as a quarantine unit which means all staff are wearing enhanced PPE, including masks, gloves, gowns and goggles when interacting with prisoners. Prisoners have also been instructed to wear PPE.

“Since New Zealand moved to alert level 4, there has been a requirement for staff to wear masks at all times inside the prison, and for prisoners to wear masks any time they are outside of their cell, with regular hand-washing and sanitising taking place.”

The union for prison officers, Corrections Association of New Zealand, is still trying to get the full details of the staff member who tested positive.

President Alan Whitley said they’re unlikely to know much more until later Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

“Nobody knows at this point and time how long the person may have been infectious for even if they are infectious at this point.”

He confirmed it was the first time Covid-19 had entered a prison environment.

“In level 4 in the outbreak last year, we had staff members around the country that got it [Covid-19] but fortunately at the time none of them were working as direct contact with prisoners or in an actual prison environment,” Whitley said.

The staff, like anybody in the community, are nervous about interactions around the place, Whitley confirmed, but were okay with Corrections procedures when it comes to trying to keep Covid-19 out of their facilities.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said it will an unsettling time for many at the prison. “I want to acknowledge the frontline staff going to work every day while we try to eradicate the virus.”

Speaking ahead of the Springhill Prison Covid scare, Sanson said he had “major reservations” about essential workers travelling across the border for work.

Sanson was due to talk to police on Tuesday afternoon to discuss how they will manage the Auckland-Waikato border.

“I just hope with a wing and a prayer that we get through unscathed here,” he told Stuff.

“Ask me in a month’s time because we’re going to be bloody lucky if we get away unscathed here, considering how versatile this Delta variant is.”

Sanson spoke to the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday morning and said Waikato’s rural residents, especially in the district’s west, are anxious not to get Covid in their community.

“They will be diligent in how they operate, and they will be very, very careful.”

As at August 27, there were 8198 prisoners in facilities across New Zealand, 4517 of whom had received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Of those, 1122 are fully vaccinated.