Michael Letour / CC BY-SA/ creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0
Northwest State Correctional Facility
With most coronavirus testing now complete, roughly 15 percent of inmates and staff at the Northwest State Correctional Facility are known to have the infection.
A total of 32 inmates out of nearly 200 who were confined at the St. Albans prison have tested positive for COVID-19, the Vermont Department of Corrections announced Saturday. Another 16 employees have also contracted the virus, with nine employee tests still pending.
The outbreak is nearly as large, in terms of case volume, as those at two Burlington nursing homes, where more than 50 residents and staff at each have been diagnosed.
The first Northwest staffer was diagnosed April 1, and the prison was placed on full lockdown on April 6 when two more staffers tested positive. The first inmate was diagnosed the following day, at which point the DOC decided to test everyone at the facility.
An initial batch of results received Thursday revealed a large-scale outbreak that had spread to a majority of inmate units. Prison officials scrambled to relocate 28 coronavirus-positive inmates two hours away at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, which had been designated as a quarantine facility.
"We didn't expect this number," DOC Interim Commissioner Jim Baker told reporters on Friday. "It was a big number."
Before they could be moved, the 65 inmates being housed in the work camp portion of the St. Johnsbury facility had to be relocated elsewhere in the state prison system.
Four of the infected inmates are quarantined in negative-pressure rooms at Northwest — a decision Baker said is intended to preserve space in St. Johnsbury if the outbreak expands within Northwest or if other prisons are stricken. The St. Johnsbury site can hold 80 inmates, but Baker said the department only has enough medical staff to handle 56.
None of the 28 who were relocated are showing symptoms, according to the department. Those who become seriously ill will be taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, about 90 minutes away.
A department press release announcing the decision to use the UVM Medical Center instead of nearby Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital did not explain why, but Baker previously acknowledged concerns about overwhelming the much more limited hospital resources in the Northeast Kingdom.
At least one of the 16 infected staff members became seriously ill, but some of those who tested positive had not shown any symptoms.
Staff at the St. Johnsbury prison have been provided personal protective equipment, or PPE, and trained on how to properly use it, Baker said. The department has also set up a decontamination tent outside the facility and has offered to pay for motel rooms near the prison for staff members who fear bringing the virus home.
News of the outbreak has prompted calls to test inmates and staff at all six of the state's prisons. Among those urging universal testing was the Vermont State Employees' Association, which sent a letter to Gov. Phil Scott on Friday requesting immediate testing at all "24/7 facilities."
State officials have said they don't have the capacity needed to do mass testing at a facility unless they have evidence of infection. The only confirmed case outside of Northwest involves a staff member at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.
In an interview, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director James Lyall called it "shocking and appalling" that the state isn't moving to test all inmates and staff.
"It's inexcusable to wait for another outbreak that endangers people," he said.
The ACLU of Vermont and other civil liberties advocates continue to press officials to release more inmates, especially those who are elderly, have certain medical conditions or are nearing the end of their sentence, to reduce the risk of spread inside state prisons.