Reporter Debrief: What We Know About The COVID-19 Outbreak At Northern State Correctional Facility
Department of Corrections officials held a press conference Thursday morning about the COVID-19 outbreak at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, which has infected 128 inmates and 10 staff. So far, the agency reports that no one is showing symptoms, but the facility is taking steps to prepare in case of complications from the disease. The source of the outbreak, which is the largest in Vermont's corrections system since the pandemic began, remains unknown.
The outbreak was announced Tuesday night. At that time, officials said they were treating the facility “like a hospital.”
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Liam Elder-Connors, who covered today’s press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: What more did Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker say about the situation at Northern State?
Liam Elder-Connors: Commissioner Baker walked through some of the protocols and things that the Department of Corrections is doing right now, including having ambulances staged outside of the facility in case any inmates need to be taken to a hospital. He also said that they're going to have a doctor who is inside the facility for 12 hours every day, seven-days-a-week, and have a doctor who is also on call for the other 12-hours-a-day.
They're going to be making sure they have plenty of fluids, like Gatorade. He said he's having the kitchen make soup, just basically doing all these things to prepare if inmates start to develop more complications.
When Commissioner Baker spoke to reporters, he said none of the inmates were exhibiting any symptoms of the virus. And Commissioner Baker also said that all of the inmates who have tested positive are quarantined in other parts of the facility, away from those who've tested negative so far.
OK, but no symptoms so far. Have they been doing contact tracing on individuals? And do they know the source of the outbreak?
They are doing contact tracing, but they do not know exactly how this started, or haven't really been able to get into some of those finer details of really what precipitated this large spread. The outbreak first was detected back on Feb. 23, when one staff and 21 incarcerated individuals tested positive for the virus. Another part of the contact tracing will be looking at if the protocols meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 were properly followed.
We've heard prisoners’ rights advocates argue for everyone who's incarcerated in Vermont to get priority for vaccinations. Did Commissioner Baker have anything to say to those calls that we've been hearing?
Yeah, Commissioner Baker was asked about this a couple of times at the press conference. And you know, he said that there are conversations happening and that he's “always advocating for the corrections system,” though he didn't have anything specific to say [about] if he's pushing for making inmates a priority or when that would be. But he did say he thinks that under the current vaccination plan that the state has, inmates could be getting vaccinated soon.
“I anticipate within the next couple, three weeks, with the bands going where they are, we're going to pick up a big chunk, a big chunk, of the incarcerated population, along with our staff being vaccinated. And we'll have a high percentage of individuals inside the system vaccinated.” - Commissoner Jim Baker
Baker said there are inmates who have been vaccinated because the Department of Corrections is following the age banding system that the state is using. So, inmates who are 65 and older are eligible for the vaccine, and as of right now 17 inmates in Vermont have been vaccinated.
And Baker actually said that the facility in Newport was scheduled to have a vaccination clinic this week, but it was canceled because of the outbreak.
OK, so Baker says that a lot of inmates will be picked up just based on how the state is following its vaccination schedule. But I mean, what do we know about the demographics of people who are in Vermont prisons? Are they going to fall under the age bands or other priority groups relatively soon?
So, taking a look at the last kind of demographic report from the Department of Corrections, which was at the end of January, the vast majority of the population in the Vermont correctional system, they're under the age of 60; about 88%. And so as of right now, a lot of those individuals wouldn't be covered by the state's vaccination plan.
There was a report from June of 2020 that said about 26% of inmates at that time had at least one COVID-19 risk factor. And next week, the state will be expanding eligibility for vaccines to people that have certain conditions that make them have a higher risk of complications due to COVID-19. So, some inmates would likely be covered under that category as well, though I'm not sure how many would qualify.
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