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COVID-Positive Vermont Inmates At Mississippi Prison Symptom-Free, So Far

Gov. Phil Scott stands at a podium next to a screen
ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at his twice-weekly media briefing Friday. Among the announcements: high school sports are on for the fall, $12 million in grants is available for child care, and state officials are assessing a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates.

None of the 146 Vermont inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 at a privately run prison in Mississippi are exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker.

The department reported earlier this week that 147 of the 219 Vermont inmates serving time at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility had tested positive for COVID-19. Officials announced an audit of those results has since brought the number to 146, with another 65 inmates testing negative, and eight refusing the test all together.

Baker said during a media briefing Friday that his department’s medical director and logistics chief arrived in Mississippi Thursday afternoon to assess the coronavirus outbreak.

“It was decided that we needed medical expertise and operational expertise to validate that everything that could be done is being done to care for the Vermont population,” Baker said.

More from VPR: Nearly 70% Of Vermont Inmates At Mississippi Prison Have COVID-19

Baker said the Department of Corrections' medical director, Dr. Scott Strenio, has examined all COVID-positive inmates since arriving in Mississippi on Thursday, and that Strenio told him that “there’s no one that are exhibiting symptoms that he’s concerned about.”

“Dr. Strenio reports that he’s satisfied with the level of observation, medical care, and tracking of medical surge at three hospitals within a 60-mile radius of the facility,” Baker said.

The commissioner said two inmates were sent to a local hospital due to a drop in oxygen saturation levels, but that both have since returned to the prison.

He added that Strenio is now examining inmates’ medical records, “to do a clinical assessment and identify those inmates at greatest risk” of complications from COVID-19. Baker also said he has demanded that CoreCivic, the private company that owns the Tallahatchie prison, test all inmates and staff at the facility, which has a maximum capacity of 2,800 inmates.

Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday that the Department of Corrections didn't seek universal COVID testing for Vermont inmates being held in Mississippi until six returned to Vermont last week and tested positive for the coronvirus.

“CoreCivic will not get their arms around the outbreak if they do not determine the level of spread amongst the remaining staff and the other inmate population,” Baker said.

"CoreCivic will not get their arms around the outbreak if they do not determine the level of spread amongst the remaining staff and the other inmate population." — Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker

Baker said Strenio and logistics chief Bob Arnell are scheduled to return to Vermont Saturday. He added that he hasn’t decided yet whether to recommend that Vermont send additional staff to Mississippi next week.

“We’ll be getting a briefing from them … to have a better idea of what they saw and what they accomplished, and then we’ll have a decision about whether we need to send additional staff down next week for eyes on and boots on the ground,” Baker said.

Vermont currently has 115 unoccupied male beds in its in-state prison system. But Baker said he has no plans to transfer inmates being held in Mississippi back to Vermont.

“We’re a little concerned about potentially [if] we have another outbreak in a Vermont facility, to keep the space open for us to be able to manage those outbreaks, so we don’t get a situation that looks like Mississippi,” he said.

More from VPR: Officials Say State Failed To Ensure Private Prison Tested All Vermont Inmates

High school sports on for fall

The governor said Friday that COVID-19 will not result in a cancellation of the fall sports season at Vermont schools.

But Scott noted competition won't look the same during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Kids, coaches and parents should prepare themselves: Things will look much different, especially when it comes to high-contact sports," Scott said.

More from VPR: Poll Finds Vermonters Split Over Reopening Public Schools In Fall

He added his administration is working with the Vermont Principals Association on fall sports guidelines, and that he expects those guidelines to be issued next week.

Colleges and universities across the region have already canceled their fall sports seasons, and two people with of the University of Vermont basketball program tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

$12M available in child care grants

Child care centers are now eligible for $12 million in coronavirus relief grants. The governor said the new program will be accepting grant applications through Aug. 26.

“This will help childcare providers with losses and additional expenses due to COVID-19,” Scott said.

Child care and afterschool programs, as well as summer day camps and parent-child centers, are all eligible for grants. Money for the program comes from the federal coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress earlier this year.

Child care providers can apply for the grants online at the Department for Children and Families.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld

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