Vermont's largest coronavirus outbreak in a prison has grown to 128 inmates and 10 staff members at the the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said Thursday.
The Corrections Department has added medical staff to the facility, which now houses 343, isolated the inmates who tested positive, quarantined those who tested negative, boosted mental health counseling and set up the locked-down facility as if it's a hospital, including identifying people at high risk, he said. As of Wednesday night, none were symptomatic, Baker said.
"I want to assure everyone that we’re applying every resource, asset to address the welfare of our staff and the incarcerated population that we’re responsible for,” he said.
But Baker said contract tracing has been unable to pinpoint how the virus entered the facility and how it spread to two different buildings.
A staff member who was last in the facility on or about Feb. 16 tested positive in a test that person took privately, Baker said. The Corrections Department tested the entire facility on Feb. 23 and found that 21 incarcerated individuals and an additional staff member were infected, he said. Another test of the facility was done on March 1 and the results showed that 129 inmates and 10 staff were positive. One of those incarcerated individuals has since been released, he said.
“This is a significant and critical event and it's requiring all hands on deck inside the Vermont Department of Corrections. It's very concerning to me as commissioner, it's very concerning to our staff and I know it's very concerning to family members who have loved ones who are incarcerated at the Northern facility," he said. People who tested negative were being tested again on Thursday, he said.
Vermont has started vaccinating inmates, following the age bands that the state has set for priority vaccines, Baker said. Vaccinations at the Northern State Correctional Facility had to be canceled this week because of the outbreak, he said. The Corrections Department expects to start vaccinating staff, which were given priority, this weekend, he said.
The state is also expanding eligibility to include people aged 16 to 64 who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at higher risk of complications or death when infected with COVID-19. Starting Monday, people with those conditions in the 55-to-64 age group will be able to make vaccine appointments. The younger group will be able to register the week after that. Baker said he expects that band to "pick up a pretty good chunk" of the prison population because of those chronic conditions.
In other pandemic-related news:
The Vermont National Guard-run clinics in South Burlington on Friday and this weekend have numerous available appointments for first-dose vaccines for people aged 65 and older, the state Health Department said Thursday.
People in that age group may sign up for a vaccine or reschedule their appointments to one of those clinics online or by calling 855-722-7878, the Health Department said.
The Health Department believes that part of the reason there's a high number of available slots is because the Vermont National Guard is listed further down the alphabetical scheduling list. People are making appointments at other locations while there are some as soon as Friday at the South Burlington clinics, the Health Department said.
Vermont reported 112 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, for a statewide total since the pandemic began of more than 15,600.
A total of 27 people were hospitalized with five in intensive care, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 124.86 new cases per day on Feb. 17 to 102.71 new cases per day on March 3.