At least 85 Vermont inmates housed in a Mississippi prison have been infected with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, with about 90 tests still pending in what the head of the Vermont Corrections Department on Monday called “a very serious situation.”

Vermont, which has the lowest number of total coronavirus cases in the country, houses 219 inmates at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, because of a lack of capacity in its own prisons. After six inmates returning to Vermont from Mississippi tested positive when they arrived at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont, the state Corrections Department on July 30 ordered that the remaining Vermont inmates in Mississippi be tested. Another Vermont inmate held there had already tested positive after having a fever.

Mississippi's protocol is to test symptomatic inmates and the state had limited capacity for testing, said Vermont Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker. After the tests came back positive, Vermont insisted on immediate separation of inmates who tested negative from those who tested positive in Mississippi, follow-up testing for those who tested negative, testing of staff and 24-hour nurse staffing on duty, he said.

“These folks have been victimized by the virus and they need to be treated as they're victims and they need to be taken care of with the highest level of care we can give them," Baker said.

No inmates have symptoms that would require the next level of care, he said. Eight inmates refused to be tested and have been medically isolated. The state is working to determine the most vulnerable Vermont inmates in Mississippi to create care plans for them and has been tracking nearby hospitals which currently have capacity, Baker said.

The Vermont inmates at the Tallahatchie County prison will now be tested regularly as inmates at Vermont prisons are, he said.

For inmate advocates, the testing came too late.

“This was predictable and preventable," said James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. It was the direct result of Republican Gov. Phil Scott's administration “stubbornly refusing to take a more proactive approach to the threat of COVID-19 in prison settings," he said. "It reflects a callous indifference to the lives of people who live and work in our prison system, and the communities to whom they are connected."

The Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office filed a lawsuit early in the pandemic to bring the Vermont inmates back or have the facility adopt CDC guidelines for dealing with the virus, which they agreed to do, said Defender General Matt Valerio. But then the office was getting reports of staff not always wearing masks, inmates who did janitorial jobs moving freely within the facility without hand coverings or masks, people serving food who might be wearing masks but their hands weren’t covered or weren’t being washed, he said.

“There’s definitely a different culture and demeanor in Mississippi about the virus and how impactful it can be,” he said.

CoreCivic said it has “rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” even before any confirmed cases in its facilities, said Ryan Gustin, public affairs manager. The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility has followed CDC guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic and is continuing to work closely with Vermont officials “to enhance procedures as needed," he said.

CoreCivic's two-year contract to house the inmates ends in October. The prison can house up to 2,700 inmates, though CoreCivic would not say how many are currently there.