Officials Say NEK Prison Outbreaks Partly Due To Lower Vaccination Rates

State officials said that persistent COVID-19 cases within state prisons, and the declared outbreaks at the facilities in Newport and St. Johnsbury, are partly a reflection of low vaccination rates and high degrees of infection within the community.

“I will note that those in the Northeast, Northwest, and I think Rutland as well, have a lower vaccination rate of the offenders of any of the correctional facilities across the state,” said Gov. Phil Scott during the state’s media briefing Tuesday morning, noting that the state was looking to provide booster shots to incarcerated individuals.

The Vermont Department of Corrections announced Wednesday that six new cases of COVID-19 were detected at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. Three of the cases were identified in the incarcerated population and two among staff in outbreak testing conducted on Monday. One additional staff member tested positive in outside testing.

A total of 27 incarcerated individuals and 11 staff have tested positive in the NSCF outbreak, which began on Nov. 10. There are now a total of 22 active incarcerated cases and nine active staff cases at NSCF; five individuals and two staff have been medically cleared of the virus. The facility remains on full lockdown and contact tracing on the new positives is underway. Further testing will be conducted within the facility.

Active outbreaks are declared at Vermont facilities: NSCF and Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, where two staff and two incarcerated individuals are currently COVID-positive. Statewide there are currently 26 positive incarcerated cases and 14 positive staff cases across six correctional facilities.

According to data from AHS and DOC, at NSCF in Newport 74.6% of inmates and 58.9% of staff are vaccinated and at NECC in St. Johnsbury 81.6% of inmates and 74.1% of staff are vaccinated. The statewide vaccination rates are 71.3% for inmates and 77% for staff.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Tuesday the issue is the virus finding its way into the facilities from the community.

“It really does reflect - the virus comes into the facilities and the facilities have been doing a great job - probably the best in the country in trying - to curb the transmission in the facilities,” said Smith. “But it does enter the facilities - it does enter at locations where there is high infection rates. Orleans with Northern [State Correction Facility] obviously has been a particular one that we’ve been looking at.”

Smith said vaccines helped curb the spread once the virus is within the inmate population.

“Earlier we would see an infection and then we’d have 180 that would be infected right away,” said Smith, referencing an outbreak at the Newport prison last spring that was the largest such outbreak for Vermont thus far. “We are seeing pockets of infection but we are seeing a containment of that infection as we move forward.”

Smith said the correctional facilities are still utilizing isolation and separation techniques to mitigate spread when a case is identified. DOC also utilizes repeated rounds of facility-wide testing to help identify the cases.

In the next few weeks, DOC will begin to roll out booster opportunities for inmates as the first rounds of the population who originally received Moderna or Pfizer vaccines become eligible at the 6-month mark.

“Going to be boostering facilities as soon as the inmates are eligible and I expect that to happen within the next few weeks -in terms of trying to get anyone that’s eligible within those facilities,” said Smith.

NEK Cases

The Northeast Kingdom added 35 new cases on Sunday, 14 new cases on Monday and 18 new cases on Tuesday, according to information from the Health Department. The 7-day average of new cases stands at just under 54 cases per day.

No new case data from the Health Department will be released until Monday because of the Thanksgiving holiday indicates the Health Department data dashboard. There will continue to be testing and vaccination opportunities. Details on the various clinics are available at the Health Department website. Vaccination clinics in the NEK include: St. Johnsbury on Saturday, and Derby and St. Johnsbury on Monday.

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