Senate leader demands answers after report about prison nurse’s COVID-19 death

Senate leader demands answers after report about prison nurse’s COVID-19 death
File Photo: Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) addresses reporters at a press conference in January 2020. (Source: Corey Schmidt)

NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - State Senate leader Phil Berger is demanding answers from the North Carolina prison system following a news report Thursday that revealed the death of a Caswell Correctional Center nurse diagnosed with COVID-19.

Barbara Anne Stewart died May 7 at a Danville, Virginia, hospital at the age of 57, about a month after she tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Prior to her death, reporting from a seven-newsroom statewide collaborative showed that state prison leadership refused a mid-April offer from county health officials to conduct free on-site testing of staff and inmates at Caswell Correctional Center as the virus continued to spread in the facility, weeks after Stewart tested positive.

Instead, prison leaders on April 21 approved off-site testing for staff members at the prison northeast of Greensboro — testing that didn’t begin until May 8.

One week later, prison officials announced they would begin offering a limited run of free testing to all North Carolina prison staffers at off-site locations across the state. That testing, which started Monday, has been criticized by the leaders of the group that represents prison workers. Ardis Watkins, the head of the state employees association, said the plan presents a number of hurdles that might keep staff from deciding to get tested.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state prison system, refused for days to confirm Stewart’s death in response to questions from a reporter. The N.C. Department of Labor is now investigating the case as a work-related fatality, which prison leaders have said will determine whether Stewart’s family receives line-of-duty death benefits.

In a letter to state Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee Friday, Berger, R-Rockingham, wrote that the death of a nurse at Caswell, a facility that lies within his Senate district, raises “grave concerns.”

“The report points to a systemic failure of accountability, competence, and execution, and I want answers,” Berger wrote.

In a press briefing Friday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he hadn’t seen the letter from Berger yet. But Ishee at the briefing acknowledged both that he had received the letter and that he planned to provide a timely response.

“We look forward to the opportunity to answer all of the senator's questions and, quite frankly, we look forward to the opportunity to set the record straight,” Ishee said. He did not elaborate.

In a statement following the briefing, Cooper spokesperson Ford Porter called Stewart’s death “an incredible loss.”

“The Department of Public Safety must take every step possible to protect their employees, those incarcerated in state prisons and the people of North Carolina,” Porter said in the statement. “Our front line health workers are the heroes of this pandemic and it’s critical that the state continue to increase access to testing and supplies of personal protective equipment to keep them safe.”

The state Senate leader has been critical of the governor’s response to the pandemic almost from the start; first questioning the state’s testing strategy and, more recently, calling for the governor to reopen the state more quickly.

The three-page letter poses a series of questions. Among them:

  • The collaborative “reported that off site testing for Caswell Correctional Center employees was approved on April 21, 2020 but did not begin until May 8, 2020. Why did it take so long to execute the testing plan?”
  • The collaborative “reported that you will only make testing available to prison staff for two weeks. If that is true, why such a narrow window?”
  • ”Is it the position of the Executive Branch and Division of Prisons not to report COVID-19 prison staff deaths? If yes, why does this policy differ from the Executive Branch’s reporting of staff killed in the line of duty?”
  • “Have you approved line-of-duty death benefits for Mrs. Barbara Anne Stewart? If no, why? Do you believe that Mrs. Barbara Anne Stewart contracted COVID-19 at work?”

Berger also requested an array of public records, including emails and other correspondence regarding Barbara Stewart, testing for COVID-19, personal protective equipment for prison staff and COVID-19 illnesses among staff members

The state Senate leader said he expects answers to his questions by May 29.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

This story was jointly reported and edited by Kate Martin, Jordan Wilkie and Frank Taylor, of Carolina Public Press; Gavin Off, Ames Alexander and Doug Miller, of The Charlotte Observer; Dan Kane and Jordan Schrader, of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner, of WBTV; Emily Featherston, of WECT; Tyler Dukes, of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn, of WUNC-FM.

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