MONTPELIER — One hundred and forty six of the 219 Vermont inmates housed at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19.
In addition, said Department of Corrections Commissioner James Baker during Gov Phil Scott's Friday press conference, eight inmates have refused testing. Those inmates, said Baker, have been isolated for evaluation.
The Mississippi prison is operated by CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers around the country.
Baker said the outbreak in Mississippi was discovered when six inmates were transferred back to Vermont.
All six tested positive during their 14-day quarantine, he said. Baker then requested CoreCivic test all Vermont inmates, learning the company didn't have the capacity to test everyone quickly. In response, the Department of Corrections worked with the Vermont Department of Health and their counterparts in Mississippi to test all the Vermont inmates.
During communications with CoreCivic staff, said Baker, he concluded "The staff of CoreCivic did not grasp the meaning of the results or have the urgency required to address the crisis."
Vermont worked with CoreCivic to develop a response plan that was implemented on Tuesday, said Baker, who said the ability of the three hospitals within a 60-mile radius to handle care for infected inmates was evaluated by experts of Vermont who traveled to Mississippi.
"The proper protocols appeared to be good," said Baker.
Family members with loved ones in Mississippi can visit the Department of Corrections web page to get updates and receive information.
During the press conference, Scott also announced a financial package to support child care providers, afterschool programs, summer camps parent-child centers and children's integrated services.
The Operational Relief Grant program includes $12 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funding to help offset pandemic-related expenses and losses. Grant applications are open now through Aug. 26 and award notices are anticipated by Sept. 11.
"We are so grateful to the child care workers and programs who have stepped up to provide critical services to children and their families throughout this crisis," said Scott. "These grant funds will help programs recover and continue expanding the availability of early care and learning for Vermont families."
Throughout the state of emergency, Vermont has provided financial support and incentives to child care providers, including stipends for providers serving children during the summer, tuition stabilization funds, and incentives for providers serving the children of essential workers.
The Child Development Division of the Department of Children and Families, in collaboration with Building Bright Futures, will host a live informational webinar for child care programs, afterschool programs and summer day camps on Aug. 11.
Scott also announced welcome news for student athletes.
"Our goal is to allow fall sports to move forward in some fashion," he said, though "They won't be exactly what we're accustomed to."
Sports practice will begin when school officially begins on Sept. 8, though the state is still working with education officials to present a recommended plan to school districts, though the preliminary guidelines have been issued in the state's Strong and Healthy Start Guide.
"Ultimately, the name of the game is harm and risk reduction," said Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health. "Keep your risk as low as possible to keep the virus from spreading."
While numbers are starting to drop around the country, said Levine, the nation has counted 1,000 deaths a day for the past 11 days. Currently, he said, U.S. citizens are dying because of COVID-19 complications at a rate of one every 80 seconds, with total deaths likely to reach 190,000 by the end of August. Levine also noted that rates of infection are now equal in rural and urban areas. Despite that, he said, Vermont continues to be the safest state in the nation when it comes to COVID-19.
"We continue to have the lowest positivity rate in the country," said Levine, who said that rate can only remain low if Vermonters continue to stick to safety protocols.
"COVID will be with us for a while longer," he said.
Bob Audette can be contacted at email@example.com.