New Covid-19 cases in prisons prompt mask mandate, restrictions on visitors

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Northwest State Correctional Facility
Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans is among the prisons where new Covid cases have been detected. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

Updated at 4:24 p.m.

More cases of Covid-19 have been detected inside Vermont’s prisons, prompting new restrictions, including a system-wide mask mandate.

On Thursday, the Department of Corrections reported seven new Covid-19 positive cases among incarcerated people and staff. On Friday, the department said three more incarcerated people had tested positive for the virus. 

The masking requirement applies to staff members and incarcerated individuals in all six of the state’s prisons. 

Rachel Feldman, a corrections department spokesperson, said the masking requirement for all staff and incarcerated individuals had been dropped in June when Gov. Phil Scott lifted the state of emergency.

Also, the corrections department reported Thursday it has suspended visits from outsiders at prisons with new Covid cases, which currently includes five of the six prisons. 

Only Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield is allowing visitors.

The corrections department said Thursday an incarcerated individual at the Newport prison was tested Monday and found to have Covid-19. Four staff members at the prison had tested positive for the virus Tuesday. 

In addition, a staff member at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans and another staff member at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland both tested positive for the virus Tuesday, according to the corrections department.

The incarcerated person at the Newport prison lives in a housing unit where a Covid-19-positive staff member had worked, according to the corrections department. That unit is now quarantined and three individuals from that unit who were showing symptoms of Covid-19 were tested Wednesday.

Feldman, the corrections department spokesperson, said Friday that test results returned for the three incarcerated individuals at the Newport prison who had shown symptoms for the virus had come back showing they are positive for Covid-19.  

Meanwhile, staff and incarcerated individuals at the Newport prison were set to be tested Friday. The Newport prison remains in full lockdown until the test results come in.

Marble Valley and the St. Albans prison returned to modified operations. Contract tracing has resulted in three staff members now quarantined at Marble Valley, and one staff member at the St. Albans prison in quarantine.  

Testing of all incarcerated individuals at Marble Valley that took place Wednesday returned no positive Covid-19 cases, Feldman said Friday.

A breakdown of the 10 recent Covid-19 positive tests shows that seven were among vaccinated people and three were among unvaccinated people, including: 

  • Three of the four staff members at Newport prison had been vaccinated, one was not;
  • The staff member at Marble Valley and the staff member at the St. Albans prison were both vaccinated;
  • Two of the incarcerated individuals at the Newport prison had been vaccinated, while two were not.

“These cases do show us the need for masking for all,” Feldman said. 

The corrections department reported earlier this week that two incarcerated individuals at the St. Albans prison and one at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury had tested positive for Covid-19 in intake testing. 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose department includes the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, said Friday he was not surprised by the move of the corrections department to enact additional restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“I think it was inevitable as the Delta variant grew,” he said. “As much as nobody looks forward to it, it seems like a prudent move.” 

Gov. Phil Scott earlier this month had also called for mandating corrections officers to be vaccinated or face additional restrictions. 

However, that policy has yet to be implemented. The union representing corrections officers, the Vermont State Employees Association, remains in negotiations with the administration over how to carry out that policy. 

“It is not yet finalized but we are still planning on that Sept. 1 implementation,” Feldman said Friday.

Steve Howard, VSEA executive director, said Friday that the matter is subject to “impact” bargaining, meaning that the administration could impose it, but has to negotiate with the union over such items as what happens if someone refuses to get a shot. Possibilities discussed have included additional testing for unvaccinated corrections officers.

Howard said he is “optimistic” an agreement will be reached.

As for the masking mandate for corrections officers, he said, “It’s really important that we take every precaution that we can to prevent the spread of Covid.” 

Howard added, “It prevents people from being able to target anybody who they think is not vaccinated because everybody is wearing a mask.”

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Alan J. Keays

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