More than a third of the Vermont inmates currently housed outside the state have tested positive for COVID-19, according to preliminary numbers released by the state’s Department of Corrections.
Out of 219 Vermont inmates currently held at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCCF) in Tutwiler, Mississippi, 85 tested positive for the virus over the weekend. Vermont’s inmates in Mississippi were tested after six inmates returning to the Green Mountain State tested positive for COVID-19 last week upon intake at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.
“Test results from Tallahatchie are still pending and the following numbers are still awaiting final confirmation,” Rachel Feldman, news contact for the department, said during a news conference Monday. “We hope to have full test results today or tomorrow.”
The numbers include:
- 85 positive cases among the Vermont population at the facility, including 84 who were identified through testing that is still underway and one who tested positive last week.
- About 30 negative individuals.
- About 90 still pending.
Vermont Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker estimated a small number, approximately eight individuals, refused to get tested.
“This is not unusual for us here, in Vermont, to get folks who refuse to take a test,” he said, noting that those who refuse are treated as positive. “We test the facilities so much, it’s not a pleasant experience to go through.”
The Mississippi facility is run by CoreCivic, a private prison company. Vermont’s Department of Corrections contracts with the prison group to house Vermont inmates who state officials have said cannot safely fit in the state’s correctional facilities.
“Teams from VTDOC and CoreCivic are working around the clock to implement the Vermont model of mitigation at TCCF and ensure the continued safety of the inmates housed there,” Baker wrote in a statement.
COVID-19 in Mississippi
On Sunday, Mississippi had 672 new COVID-19 cases — the first time in six days that the new positive case count was under 1,000, according to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. The total number of positive cases in the state was 60,553. Ten people also were reported to have died from the virus on Sunday, bringing the death toll in Mississippi to 1,703.
Unlike Vermont, Mississippi does not have a statewide mask mandate. However, a number of counties have their own mask mandates, the Clarion-Ledger reported. One of those counties is Tallahatchie County, where the private prison is located.
The Mississippi facility has been following health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which have evolved over time, said CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin. He said the prison company is working with Vermont officials to enhance procedures as needed.
Gustin said the Vermont inmates recently transferred back from Mississippi were screened for symptoms, including a temperature check, before they left the facility.
“None of the inmates showed any symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” Gustin wrote in an email Monday. “Once we learned of these positive cases, we placed the housing pods that these inmates were transferred from on a medical isolation/quarantine status. On-site medical staff are performing twice-daily symptom and temperature checks on the Vermont inmates.”
All staff and inmates received face masks in April, and staff are required to wear them, Gustin said. Inmates have also been educated about health and hygiene habits, and there are rules in place for staff as well, including social distancing, staying home when sick, having a temperature check and COVID-19 screening when entering the facility, and disinfecting equipment and frequently touched surfaces.
There is also a Coronavirus Medical Action Plan in place at each of CoreCivic’s facilities, Gustin said. These plans include having medical staff participate in inmate intake to identify those at a higher risk of being infected, isolating those deemed high-risk as needed, and working with state and local health officials to conduct testing.
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It is unclear what these test results mean for Vermont’s Department of Corrections and the number of inmates it sends out of state. The department said it is working with CoreCivic to put measures that Vermont has taken into place in the three units housing Vermont inmates in Mississippi.
“Testing is only one part of the response to COVID-19 inside facilities,” Commissioner Baker wrote in a statement Sunday. “You also need a clear, detailed plan for every operational aspect, from how to get laundry done to how and when to conduct follow-up testing to proper PPE for inmates and staff to communicating with local hospitals.”
Free Press Staff Writer Maleeha Syed contributed reporting.
Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.
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