One inmate has been hospitalized as the COVID-19 outbreak in the Vermont unit of a private Mississippi prison continues to expand, officials said Monday.
Thirty additional inmates have tested positive in recent days, bringing the total number of infections to at least 176 out of 219 total Vermont prisoners.
The new cases stem from a second round of mass testing on August 6.
"I cannot tell you how disappointing it is to look at a piece of paper in front of me that says 80.4 percent of the inmates that the commissioner of Corrections of Vermont — that's me — is responsible for, are positive," Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker told reporters during a press conference announcing the results.
The outbreak at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, owned by for-profit prison operator CoreCivic, was discovered late last month. By the time officials could test everyone, 146 were already infected.
Efforts to stop the outbreak have been complicated by delays in receiving test results, which can take several days in that region of the country. Baker said the latest batch of tests results began arriving last Thursday — a week after prisoners were tested.
Delayed results can make it harder to mitigate the spread, Baker said.
"The slow turnaround does not help us contain the virus," he said. "We're not surprised that these numbers have gone up. "
Only five of the infected prisoners currently have serious symptoms, one of whom is hospitalized. Another 119 are considered to be in "medical recovery," meaning they haven't shown symptoms for 10 days after testing positive.
The worsening outbreak is Vermont's largest since the pandemic began. Prison watchdogs have said it's no surprise that it would occur more than 1,000 miles away, where the state has outsourced inmate supervision to a private company.
One prisoner sued the Vermont Department of Corrections in the spring over less stringent protocols at the Mississippi site. The inmate dropped the case after officials agreed to some changes, but even then, the state did not extend its mass-testing strategy to the unit, Seven Days reported last week.
The outbreak was discovered when six prisoners were transported from Mississippi to Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland. All six tested positive, as did one other inmate and two correctional officers at Marble Valley.
The two guards are sick but not hospitalized, Baker said.
Another round of testing at the Mississippi unit took place on August 13. The state has not yet received any results.