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Officials Say State Failed To Ensure Private Prison Tested All Vermont Inmates

Mike Smith
ORCA Media
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says there is blame to go around for the failure to test Vermont inmates in Mississippi.

Gov. Phil Scott has acknowledged that his administration failed to ensure that Vermont prisoners held in a Mississippi prison were all tested for the coronavirus.

Scott spoke at a news briefing Tuesday about the outbreak inside the prison run by CoreCivic, a private contractor. At least 85 of the 219 Vermonters held there have tested positive.

“In hindsight, you know, I should have seen this coming in some respects,” Scott said. “But we were relying on CoreCivic to do the testing. And they were testing with symptomatic cases and not throughout.”

"I should have seen this coming in some respects. But we were relying on CoreCivic to do the testing. And they were testing with symptomatic cases and not throughout." — Gov. Phil Scott

Vermont routinely tests all its inmates, regardless of whether they show COVID-19 symptoms. Officials say CoreCivic will now test all Vermonters in Mississippi as its contract with the state requires.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said there was blame to go around. He said CoreCivic failed to test all the Vermont inmates, and the Vermont Corrections Department failed to make sure that was happening.

More from VPR: At Least 85 Vermont Inmates Test Positive For COVID-19 At Private Prison In Mississippi

“As the contractor [CoreCivic] was slow to implement the Vermont protocol, especially as the spread of the virus in Mississippi started to accelerate, we needed to do a better job to stay on top of that and we did not," Smith said.

He added that he may need to send state officials to Mississippi to make sure that Vermonters held in the private prison are getting the COVID testing and health care they need.

“We have people on the phone every day with them. Those meetings have been almost 24/7, now making sure that we stay on top of that what's going on down there," Smith said. "We may put boots on the ground there. That's an option we may have to do, if we feel that is necessary."

Hazard pay grants available for some, not all

Officials also used the news briefing to encourage companies to apply for hazard pay grants available to workers on the front lines of the COVID 19 pandemic.

The Legislature created the $28 million program using federal funds. Lawmakers had hoped to include more employees — such as those working in grocery stores — but those workers were not eligible for the federal dollars.

More from VPR: Legislature Wraps Up Historic COVID Session With $1 Billion Spending Plan

The money is available on first-come, first-served basis. Smith outlined the criteria:

“Eligible employees must have been working in a job with an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19 during the emergency period,” he said. “This job must have been in-person, and not done through telework.”

Employees can receive grants of $1,200 or $2,000. The money is available for health care workers, people working in homeless shelters, residential treatment centers, first responders and other jobs that put workers at risk for exposure to the virus.

Poll shows Scott enjoys broad support

Meanwhile, with a week to before the primary election, Gov. Scott says he'd like to campaign more, but needs to stay focused on COVID-19.

A new VPR-Vermont PBS poll finds the two-term incumbent enjoys wide support, with Democrats favoring him even more than Republicans.

More from VPR: July 2020 VPR-Vermont PBS Poll: Big Support For Gov. Scott, Black Lives Matter And Masks

But Scott downplayed his odds this election year. “I think I have as good a chance as any of my other competitors,” he said.

Scott faces four challengers in the August 11 GOP primary.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter John Dillon @VPRDillon

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