Local Hospitals On Standby For Prison Outbreak

Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. (File Photo)

No new cases were announced Wednesday in connection with the coronavirus outbreak at the Newport prison while local hospitals were on standby if more advanced medical treatment was necessary.

Late Tuesday Department of Corrections officials announced that the outbreak had grown from the 24 cases identified before the weekend to a total of 137 cases identified following a facility-wide round of testing on both inmates and staff on Monday. The outbreak is now the largest outbreak that has occurred at a Vermont correctional facility since the pandemic began.

Rachel Feldman, the principal assistant to the DOC Commissioner Jim Baker, said the results announced Tuesday night reflected the complete results of all the tests conducted on Monday. Northern State Correctional Facility houses approximately 350 incarcerated individuals. The outbreak has infected 127 inmates and 10 staff members, say DOC officials. Feldman explained that in this context staff includes not just Corrections Officers, but also DOC medical contractors, Building and General Services employees, and anyone else who enters the prison facility as part of their work.

Another facility-wide round of testing will be conducted today, March 4. In addition, DOC officials will hold a media briefing to update the public on the unfolding situation.

In their announcement on Tuesday evening Commissioner Baker said DOC was coordinating with its medical contractor, regional hospitals, the State Emergency Operations Center, the Vermont Department of Health, and others to ensure the inmates would have the care and services they need.

On Wednesday, Megan Sargent, VP of Patient Care Services at North Country Hospital in Newport, said DOC had been doing a good job of keeping the hospital informed of the situation, including explaining the parameters in which inmates may be transferred to the hospital for care.

“Our response to this is really the same plans that we’ve had laid out since last March,” said Sargent. “We have surge capacity in our ER, we have a dedicated COVID evaluation spot. Their communication allowed us to make sure that is up and running and fully functional.”

Sargent said her understanding of the situation is that the majority of the inmates are asymptomatic and that only a couple may have received supplemental oxygen.

DOC has medical providers that are contracted to provide a certain level of medical care within the facility.

“We are ready to roll if they need a higher level of care,” said Sargent, noting they can provide steroid treatment and even Remdesivir, an antiviral medication that has been authorized for emergency use to help treat COVID-19. Sargent also said NCH staff were prepared to assist onsite at the prison if the situation required it.

Officials from Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury have also been kept up to date on the situation, said Laural Ruggles, VP of Marketing and Community Health Improvement at NVRH. Ruggles said as a result of the outbreak NVRH Medical Director Dr. Michael Rousse reached out and provided information about the monoclonal antibody infusion clinic at NVRH. Sargent said NCH officials had familiarized themselves with the treatment protocols for the antibody treatment, which is approved for people with mild symptoms and has been shown to be effective at preventing cases from worsening to the point of hospitalization.

Sargent said recent data suggests there is a 3 to 4% hospitalization rate among people with coronavirus. Should this outbreak have comparable outcomes, she suspects there may be about 4 people who will require hospitalization given the current number of infected people.

Sargent urged the wider community to continue to be diligent about wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands. “It’s really hard not to let our guard down,” said Sargent, repeating the prevention guidance. “I firmly believe that has been our saving grace.”

While there were 108 new cases announced by DOC on Tuesday from the outbreak, the full extent of the cases is not yet reflected on the Health Department’s dashboard, which only reported 35 new cases in Orleans County. Ben Truman, public health communication officer with the Health Department, said part of the reason for the discrepancy is because the results came in Tuesday after 3 p.m., and the department was short-staffed due to the Town Meeting holiday.

“The dashboard will reflect the full case count with [Thursday’s] update,” said Truman.

In response to the escalating outbreak, the Vermont ACLU criticized state policies regarding prisoners during the pandemic.

“Vermont prisons have experienced multiple, major outbreaks of COVID-19, all of which were predictable and preventable. For too long, the governor has ignored the fact that incarcerated Vermonters are at heightened risk of harm. That approach is dangerous and inhumane,” said ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall. “The people in our prisons are members of our families and our communities, and none of them were sentenced to suffer or die in a pandemic. It’s past time for Governor Scott to start following the science and showing some basic humanity by prioritizing the vaccination and safe release of incarcerated Vermonters.”

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