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By Paul Brubaker
The Herald News

PASSAIC COUNTY, N.J. - Health officials are investigating a suspected outbreak of a drug-resistant staph infection at the Passaic County Jail, a state health official said. County officials confirmed Friday that five people - two corrections officers and three inmates - have been infected.
Felix "Phil" Garcia, president of the corrections officers' union, said Friday that two officers had been infected by Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus-aureus, or MRSA, within the last two weeks.
Later Friday, Passaic County Sheriff's Department spokesman Bill Maer said that in addition to the officers, three inmates were infected with MRSA and quarantined in the jail's medical unit.
"We have outbreaks of this nature all the time. It's a regular occurrence when you have 1,500 inmates and 100 staff members," Maer said. "We do a very aggressive job of making sure infection is contained. We have procedures and plans to make sure that it doesn't run rampant."
Dr. Peter Wenger, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said MRSA is a strain of very common "staph" bacteria. Those bacteria are usually found on the skin and in the nose. MRSA is resistant to many, but not all, antibiotics and drugs, he said.
Skin infections are contagious and easy to treat, he added. However, MRSA can be fatal if the infection enters the bloodstream, he said.
"Jails are perfect situations for spreading infection of MRSA. It's passed on by close contact between people," Wenger said.
The MRSA infections have happened at a time when the jail has been scrutinized for overcrowding.
Last week, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Seton Hall Law School's Center for Social Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the jail is squalid and overcrowded.
The overcrowding was also a factor in U.S. District Court Judge Katharine Hayden's decisions last year to reduce the sentences of three federal inmates for time served in a jail she described as "shameful."
Maer accused the union of making an issue of the MRSA infections where there was none.
"They know that outbreaks are routine - not only in the Passaic County Jail, but also at correctional institutions throughout the country," he said.
Mahmood Kahn, Passaic County's epidemiologist, said he is scheduled to inspect the jail on Wednesday. Crews armed with bleach began to disinfect the jail on Thursday - something that Maer said was a routine cleaning that the jail's administration schedules every six months.
Each inmate is inspected, and all jail surfaces are scrubbed, Maer said.
The state requires corrections facilities to report outbreaks of infection, according to Marilyn Riley of the state Department of Health. The state defines an outbreak as two or more cases of infection that occur near each other, she said.
Garcia, the union president, said he was working cooperatively with Warden Charles Meyers to combat the spread of infection.
Garcia said the union's biggest concern is a notification on Friday that workers compensation claims filed by infected officers would be denied by Bergen Risk Managers, a Ramsey firm retained by Passaic County to administer such claims. The basis for the firm's decision was that the officers cannot prove they were infected at work, Garcia said.
A telephone call to the firm Friday was not returned.
Garcia is scheduled to meet with the warden on Monday about the issue.
"I believe they caught it in the jail," he said. "I would like them to reconsider and allow my officers to have the time to go to their treatment and recover."

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Typical worker's comp rhetoric. While MRSA could be picked up in many public places, the fact that there is a current outbreak at the jail makes it likely these officers contracted it at the jail. Given the level of interactions officers (both in custodial situations and on patrol) have with people and the nature of situations (filth, disease, etc.), we are at higher risk for so many diseases. It's unfortunate that the pencil pushers who "evaluate" claims fail to take our reality into consideration.
 
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