Crime and Justice

Retesting challenges keep some inmates in 'surge' facility longer than expected

The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury is being used as facility to hold inmates who test positive for the coronavirus. Corrections Department photo

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Al Cormier of the Vermont Department of Corrections has called some of the results of the retesting of inmates and staff to determine if they still have the coronavirus “bizarre.” 

And while changes were made this week about when staff who tested positive for the coronavirus can return to work, the corrections department will continue to require two consecutive negative results for inmates who have previously tested positive for Covid-19 before removing them from isolation. 

Cormier, the department’s director of facilities, spoke last week to the St. Johnsbury Selectboard about some of the challenges of retesting inmates for Covid-19 at the Northeast Correctional Complex.

‘It’s very bizarre to us,” Cormier told selectboard members during a video meeting last week. 

He said each inmate had to obtain two negative tests to show they no longer had the virus in order to leave the “surge” facility set up at the St. Johnsbury prison for inmates who had earlier tested positive. Prisoners are then returned to the general population at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. 

“We’ve had a number of inmates that have been tested three times, we’re actually going on a fourth test for some of these guys,” Cormier said. “They’re testing positive, then they're testing negative, then they're positive again.”

A total of 38 inmates and 17 staff members had tested positive early last month when the corrections department conducted blanket testing at the St. Albans prison after an inmate there tested positive for the coronavirus.

Of those 38 inmates, 25 have since had two consecutive negative tests allowing them to go back to the St. Albans prison. Nine of those 38 inmates are still at the St. Johnsbury facility awaiting two consecutive negative test results, and, according to Cormier, they are not showing symptoms of the virus.

Four of the 38 inmates have been released. 

A second round of blanket testing has recently been completed at the St. Albans prison, with the corrections department reporting seven more inmates there testing positive for the coronavirus and one staff member. Those seven Covid-19 positive inmates have since been moved to the St. Johnsbury facility. 

Cormier said in an interview that since he’s not a medical professional he couldn’t say why some inmates would test negative and then positive on a subsequent test. He said one “idea” was that maybe not enough of a sample from a swab of an inmate was collected during a test, leading to a negative result. 

“It’s really a big unknown at this point,” he said. 

Cormier said corrections had hoped to move those inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus in that first round of testing back to the St. Albans within a shorter time frame. 

“It’s hindering our ability to return to normal operations,” Cormier said. “ It draws out the process for them to be released to the general population unit.” 

Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, was asked at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Monday about the prevalence of false negatives and false positive results with coronavirus testing.

Levine talked about the “rapidity” of tests that have been approved by the federal government since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The estimates that are being thrown around now, and these are estimates because this has not been clearly worked out anywhere in the country, is maybe 5% to 20% false negative rate,” Levine said of the tests, “meaning you won't find the virus, even in somebody who clinically seems to have all the right symptoms.” 

False positive results are, Levine added, “a little less worked out and probably not as significant as the false negative.” 

He said people can also still test positive for the virus for a longer period of time than expected, even when they are no longer showing symptoms of Covid-19. 

“We wouldn't call that a false positive test because we already knew that they had the disease and they had a true positive early on,” Levine said. “It's just that they didn't lose that positivity as quickly as you might have thought they would have considering the fact that they feel well.”

As a result, according to Levine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending a different procedure for allowing those who have tested positive for the coronavirus to get out of isolation, rather than obtaining a negative test result.  

He said the new recommendation made in recent days calls for people who are more than seven days away from the “onset” of the virus, and have gone at least three more days “completely free” of symptoms, be permitted to leave isolation. 

Levine called it a “non-test” protocol.

Tracy Dolan, Vermont’s deputy health commissioner, speaking later Monday afternoon, said the current tests being used by the state are showing about a 95% accuracy rate, with about a 5% false negative rate and a “very low” false positive rate.

“Overall, they are generally pretty reliable,” she said. 

One reason for a false negative may not be the fault of the test itself. Instead, she said, it could be the result of a person having a “low viral load” and the virus was not picked on a swab, or some other problem with the collection of a sample.

Dolan said the state is starting to move to a test that doesn’t need to have swab go as far in the nasal passageway as the current one. She said it will be easier to administer and also easier on the person being tested.

“What we’re hearing is that it’s a similar accuracy rate,” Dolan said of the latest tests. “Again, it’s about getting a good sample, so we’ll do a little training on that.”

Dolan, like Levine, also talked of the recent CDC recommendation for a “symptom-based strategy” that the state is moving to, with the state “walking away” from calling for a negative test result to allow a person who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus to leave isolation. 

“That will mean that they’ve been basically symptom-free for 10 days,” Dolan said of the new CDC recommendation. 

She said such a procedure was already in place for health care workers, but now that recommendation has been expanded.

“This allows us a little more flexibility for those who are less likely to be infectious,” she said.

Cormier, of the corrections department, said Tuesday that corrections officials have considered moving to the “non-test” protocol to allow an inmate to be removed from isolation, but have decided against adopting it for inmates, at least for now.

“At this point we’re going to stay with the two negative tests,” he said. “I’d rather err on the side of caution with a negative test result.” 

Cormier added, “I’m not saying that we won’t move toward that model in the future, but right now we’re comfortable with that.”

However, he said, the corrections department will allow for staff to return based on the ‘non-test,” “strategy-based” protocol, saying that change took place Monday. 

Asked why there would be one protocol for staff and another one inmates, Cormier spoke of the close proximity the inmates live in as well as the difficulty in ensuring they are properly sanitizing and cleaning their cells, even with providing the items to do that.

“We just want to be sure through the negative test that they are indeed negative,” he added.  

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Alan J. Keays

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