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With its medical “surge” facility filling up with prisoners who have tested positive for the coronavirus, the state Department of Corrections is now working on a plan in case an even bigger outbreak of Covid-19 occurs behind bars in Vermont.
“We are now planning for worst-case scenario,” James Baker, interim commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said late Thursday afternoon in a phone briefing with reporters.
“I’m talking about a major breakout in a facility where we get triple-digit numbers,” he said. “We have some ideas on how we could handle that, we’re working through that now.”
Baker said he expected “very shortly” to have that plan in place, but declined to go into detail Thursday.
“We’d be more than happy to brief people on that when we have that down on paper, in writing, with all the particulars worked out,” he said.
A total of 35 inmates who had been housed at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to corrections officials. The state is waiting for results on three other tests from inmates.
The results follow mass testing of workers and prisoners at the facility last week, initiated after an inmate and three corrections staff members tested positive for Covid-19. In addition to the 35 inmates so far who have tested positive, a total of 17 correctional staff at that prison have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the department.
Thirty-two of those Covid-19 positive inmates were moved to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury. Space in the St. Johnsbury facility had earlier been freed up by the corrections department, with the intention that it would serve as a “surge” facility for inmates across the corrections system who have tested positive for Covid-19.
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Two of the inmates who have tested positive have since become eligible for release and have been freed, and one inmate remains at the St. Albans facility inside a negative air pressure cell to himself, according to Alan Cormier, corrections department facilities director.
The St. Johnsbury facility, according to Baker, can house as many as 80 Covid-19 prisoners. However, he said, the department plans to cap that number at 50 to 55, in part, to not become a drain on the medical resources in that region.
The move last week of the Covid-19 inmates to that prison brought swift backlash from St. Johnsbury officials.
St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead, in a letter Gov. Phil Scott, called it “reckless” and “dangerous” to move so many inmates positive for Covid-19 to the facility at once, increasing the number of positive cases in Caledonia County for the virus by four fold.
Baker said Thursday he is sensitive to the community’s concern.
“I’m sensitive to what St. Johnsbury residents feel about what happened up there, I know they are fearful that somehow the virus will get into the community,” Baker said, adding that the corrections department has worked with the local fire chief on steps to prevent that.
Baker also said that the department is planning to move the current Covid-19 inmates at the St. Johnsbury facility once they are no longer considered a health risk to other prisoners, which could happen as early as next week.
Currently, he said, the inmates are not showing any symptoms of the illness.
Baker said the decision on when to move inmates back to the general prison population would be made with the advice of medical staff and the state Department of Health, and it would be based on “science.”
“Our plan would be to put them back in the facility where they came from,” he said. “It’s not pleasant for them, putting them in quarantine like they are, locked into a section where they have very little movement. I’m aware of that, I’m sensitive to that.”
Baker also said Thursday there are no plans to do mass testing of any of the other correctional facilities in the state at this time.
“Even though testing has ramped up and the availability of testing is better than it was, we’re still not at the ideal,” he said. “The conversation about just testing every facility is no different than the conversations that are happening inside the Agency of Human Services around such places as nursing homes, assisted living homes.”
He added, “If we get a positive test, we will consider testing the entire facility.”
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