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COVID Outbreak in Vermont Prison Could Have Been Prevented

by Douglas Ankney

As of March 11, 2021, there were more than 137 active cases of COVID-19 at the Northern State Correctional Facility (NSCF) in Newport, Vermont. James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont said, “This was predictable and it was preventable. Just like the multiple other outbreaks that we’ve seen in Vermont’s prisons over the past year, this did not need to happen.”

More than 127 prisoners and ten staff members had been infected as the number of cases grew six-fold at NSCF in just one week. Lyall blamed Governor Phil Scott for failing to act aggressively by prioritizing prisoners and staff for vaccination. He accused the Scott administration of ignoring the science that proves prison populations are at a heightened danger of harm same as people in other clustered settings who cannot properly social distance. Lyall urged that all of Vermont’s 1,250 prisoners must be vaccinated immediately.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Union, echoed Lyall, commenting that the administration doesn’t seem to recognize the risk. Although vaccination became available to corrections officers on March 1, 2021, Howard said that decision was long overdue. “I don’t know that the administration officials at the highest level fully appreciate the amount of sacrifice and hard work that the frontline staff had put into preventing massive outbreaks of COVID in these facilities and dealing with them as they have erupted,” Howard said.

After the Scott administration announced on March 2, 2021 that it was expanding vaccination access to teachers and corrections staff - but not to incarcerated people — Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio said that to prevent future outbreaks, that needed to change. “First of all, I think that the corrections officers - [it] should be mandatory that they be vaccinated. And secondly, the inmates should be offered the vaccine upon entry to a facility. It seems like the only smart thing to do to make sure that the outbreaks don’t continue.”

Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner (VDOC) Jim Baker reported that a doctor will be on site at NSCF “seven days a week, 12 hours a day and the other 12 hours a day we will have doctors on call that will be able to manage any medical situations that come up.” Baker claimed that the VDOC would transport prisoners to the hospital when necessary. “We are fully prepared to handle new positive cases at our facilities.”

The outbreak at NSCF is just the most recent. The 127 prisoners represent more than 10% of the total prisoner population. By comparison, if 10% of the American public became infected with COVID-19, the number would be close to 40 million instead of just over the actual one-half million. In spite of the facts and the numbers, Governor Scott continues to refuse to prioritize for vaccination those segments of the population — including prisoners — that are at exponentially greater risk of becoming infected.


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