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First Vermont Inmate Tests Positive For COVID-19

A cement sign for Northwest Correctional Facility.
Michael Letour
Vermont's first inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 at Northwest Correctional Facility in Swanton. The prison is now testing all inmates and staff for the coronavirus.

Vermont officials have announced an inmate in the state's prison system has tested positive for COVID-19.

Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at a press conference Wednesday the inmate ill with the coronavirus is located at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton.

“The inmate began showing symptoms Monday morning," Smith said. "He was immediately placed in a negative pressure cell."

Smith noted, of the four Department of Corrections staff members who have tested positive for the illness so far, three have been at the Swanton prison, which went on modified lockdown on Sunday and full lockdown on Monday.

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Of those three staff members, Smith said one had no contact with inmates, another may have come into contact with inmates within 48 hours of developing symptoms, and another definitely interacted with inmates within 48 hours of falling ill.

"Contact tracing is underway at Northwestern," he said, adding the person who had shared the cell with the positive inmate has also been isolated, though has not developed symptoms. "The information we have so far does not link the positive inmate with the positive staff."

According to Smith, all 125 staff members and 199 inmates at the facility are undergoing testing, and everyone there has been given a face mask to wear.

For more reporting about the experiences of Vermont's inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic, head here.

He also said all staff and inmates at Vermont's other prisons will be required to wear masks beginning Thursday, that the facilities started screening inmates for symptoms three times a day on Monday, and that staff members have undergone daily screenings since March 23.

In the last month, Smith said Vermont's inmate population has declined from 1,671 to 1,435.

"I attribute that drop not only to our careful application of release rules, but also to reduced prosecution and incarceration activity in the past several weeks as the crisis has expanded," he said.

In response to concerns about these releases, both Smith and Gov. Phil Scott said they have all Vermonters' safety in mind.

"We have a responsibility, obviously, to protect those in our custody, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to those in our communities to keep them safe," Scott said.

Cases plateau

At what has become a regular press briefing Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with the governor's administration, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said there were no new COVID-19-related deaths to report, marking a second day in a row without additional fatalities.

Of the 620 new tests performed, 30 came back positive, which Levine said has been "kind of an average number" for Vermont, minus the days tests were performed at Burlington Health & Rehab and Birchwood Terrace, the state's two outbreak sites.

"The percent positive tests and the number of positive tests each day ... has really been at a very stable level for quite awhile now," Levine said. "It really does indicate we’re not heading towards what we were terming a 'worst-case sencario.'"

He added: "The health department continues to have a laser focus on proactive efforts to prevent further outbreaks in long-term care facilities."

For more about Vermont's COVID-19 modeling and what it means for the coming weeks, head here.

Levine also said Wednesday that the state has received a limited number of rapid tests for COVID-19, which will be deployed strategically around the state.

Extended stay-at-home order coming

Vermont's governor has been hinting he would extend his stay-at-home order, which currently expires on April 15. On Wednesday, Scott said the order would be extended Friday.

"These steps are saving lives: Grandparents, parents, neighbors and friends are still with us today because Vermonters have done the right thing, and you deserve all the credit," Scott said. "But we can't lift our foot off the gas just yet, because this could all change in an instant."

While the governor wouldn't elaborate on how long this extension might be, he said without a vaccine available, varying measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be in place "for the foreseeable future."

Levine, the health commissioner, said he didn't think strict social distancing would be required every day of the next year, but it may need to be put in place when and if the coronavirus flares back up in the community, in addition to rapid testing and contact tracing.

"So that any small outbreak of activity can be suppressed as rapidly as it appeared," he said.

Levine added there will likely be antibody testing in Vermont's population in the future.

Unemployment claims

In addition to the order extension, the governor said another priority for his administration this week was the improvement of the unemployment claims process.

"We know we need to do better," Scott said. "We're looking for every opportunity to do that."

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said the department is temporarily increasing its staff to handle the high volume of calls coming in while looking for a longer-term solution.

“Probably 40-50 % of the claims that come through our system have some sort of issue," Harrington said."We’re trying to devote as much staff as we can to sort through those issues."

For more about the state's response to surging unemployment claims amid COVID-19, head here.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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