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After Moving COVID-Positive Inmates To St. Johnsbury, Corrections Officials Try To Allay Fears

A screen shot of a Zoom meeting.
Peter Hirschfeld
The St. Johnsbury Selectboard held a meeting over Zoom on Monday to learn more about the COVID-positive inmates who have been relocated to a prison in the town.

Corrections officials are trying to alleviate fears in St. Johnsbury after they relocated 28 inmates with COVID-19 to an “isolation facility” in the town.

When a single inmate at Northwestern State Correctional Facility in St. Albanstested positive for COVID-19 last week, state officials decided to screen everyone in the prison.

Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker said he was caught off-guard by the results.

“We did not expect the surge to happen as quickly as it did,” Baker said. “We were taken by surprise.”

Baker said he had no choice but to initiate the contingency plan his department had designed for this sort of event. In a matter of hours, 28 COVID-positive inmates from St. Albans were en route to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury.

At the time, few people in St. Johnsbury knew their local prison had been chosen as an “isolation facility” for COVID-positive inmates. When they found out, Town Manager Chad Whitehead said his phone started ringing.

"We probably didn't do as best a job we could in informing the community about the impact of moving the folks to the facility in St. Johnsbury." — Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker

“The general reaction, as you can imagine, is fear,” he said.

Fear, Whitehead added, that correctional staff working inside the facility would contract the new coronavirus and hasten its spread in the community.

Before the inmates were relocated to St. Johnsbury last Thursday, the Vermont Department of Health had reportedfewer than 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in all of Caledonia County.

On Monday evening, during a meeting of the St. Johnsbury Select Board conducted over Zoom, Baker did his best to allay those fears. He also apologized for the poor public rollout of the relocation plan.

“We probably didn’t do as best a job we could in informing the community about the impact of moving the folks to the facility in St. Johnsbury,” he said.

More from VPR: Vermont's Prison COVID-19 Outbreak Brings Concerns For Inmates And Their Families

Baker told select board members the Northeast Correctional Complex is uniquely suited to handle COVID-19 cases, because it has an air handling system and floor layout that allow different parts of the prison to be sealed off from others.

“And so us selecting St. Johnsbury’s facility was nothing more than us looking for a facility that could handle that," Baker said. "So how we could isolate people off and not have intermingling of populations inside a facility.”

While most of the existing inmates at Northeast Correctional Complex were moved to another prison, 25 non-COVID-positive inmates remain at the facility.

"It seems kind of a stretch that we can give some corrections people a few hours of training and some gear and expect they're going to be able to stay healthy and clean." — St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck

Department of Corrections facilities executive Al Cormier said inmates with COVID-19 will be confined to a “hot zone” inside the facility, to prevent spread to other inmates and staff. He said a military tent in the recreation yard serves as a staging area for officers to don and doff personal protective equipment when they leave or enter the zone.

“They have a decontamination solution that they can spray their boots with that will kill the virus. There’s a handwashing station where they wash their hands. There’s hand sanitizer available there,” Cormier said. “We’ve got protocols and processes in place to do our best to not bring anything out of that facility.”

Baker told select board members he understands the importance of those protocols. He said a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 at the St. Albans prison has been in intensive care for more than a week.

“And a week ago Sunday, we almost lost him, so it’s not lost on me the responsibility here,” Baker said.

St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck said he appreciates the efforts by the Department of Corrections to mitigate the risks. But he added healthcare professionals with decades of experience in infectious disease protocols are contracting COVID-19 as a result of treating infected patients.

“It seems kind of a stretch that we can give some corrections people a few hours of training and some gear and expect they’re going to be able to stay healthy and clean as well,” Beck said.

Baker said St. Johnsbury can hold up to 53 COVID-positive inmates. That statement prompted a question from St. Johnsbury resident Scott Campbell.

"This is unlike anything I've ever seen in my experience in 45 years, and we're trying to come up with very extreme plans right now to deal with that." — Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker

“What’s the plan if you all of a sudden have 100 or 150 inmates that are testing positive and you have to find a place for? What happens then?” Campbell asked.

If several hundred inmates test positive for COVID-19, Baker said, it’s possible the state will have to find someplace other than a prison to house infected inmates.

“This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my experience in 45 years, and we’re trying to come up with very extreme plans right now to deal with that,” Baker said.

What are your questions, concerns and experiences with the coronavirus? Share them with VPR, here.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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