Call to vaccinate inmates intensifies as outbreak continues at Newport prison

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MONTPELIER – As COVID-19 continues to spread among staff and inmates at Northern State Correctional Facility, a group of state lawmakers and the Vermont NAACP are calling for the immediate vaccination of every incarcerated Vermonter.

The latest round of testing at the prison identified 12 additional positive cases, bringing the outbreak’s total to 181.

In a letter to Governor Phil Scott, 17 lawmakers, including the entire House Progressive Caucus, said the situation at Northern State should be reason for the state to change its vaccination playbook and protect what many consider a forgotten and vulnerable group of people.

“I think it’s a really important moment here where we either consider incarcerated Vermonters part of our community or not,” said Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P/D – Chittenden). “That is the definition of a vulnerable population, when they cannot move, they cannot escape this virus coming in.”

The outbreak dates back to February 23. It spread rapidly in that first week, impacting over 100 inmates and staff members by March 2. At the time, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said “Northern State is now being treated like a hospital”.

Steffen Gillom, President of the Windham Branch of the Vermont NAACP, said there needs to be action before a similar situation arises.

“The bottom line is that we’re not paying enough attention to the system, and now that we are paying attention to it, we’re seeing what’s going on,” Gillom said. “There needs to be prioritization so this doesn’t keep happening.”

The Vermont NAACP has been at the forefront of the push to get incarcerated Vermonters their doses. Prior to the lawmakers’ letter, the group outlined similar demands on Saturday.

“It should be noted that we always have to be the ones to stand up,” said Rutland Branch President Mia Schultz. “We actually didn’t even discuss any of that with legislators, we just felt because of who we are and who we represent, we needed to make a statement. The Governor never responded to us directly.”

Jason Maulucci, Press Secretary for the Office of Governor Phil Scott, defended Vermont’s age-banding strategy for vaccination. Scott has said repeatedly that it’s the safest and least divisive method of deciding who gets vaccinated first.

“As the Governor and state officials have repeatedly said, the primary objective of Vermont’s vaccine strategy is the preservation of life, and the science and data clearly show that age is the top risk factor,” Maulucci said. “That’s why we’ve taken an age-banding approach, which has included inmates who are eligible in accordance with the state’s vaccination phases.”

He also noted that several other states have subsequently adopted Vermont’s age-banding strategy.

Other legislators who signed off on the letter to Governor Scott said a lot of the work done in Vermont when it comes to distributing the vaccine should be applauded, but there’s always more to advocate for.

“I think we have done an amazing job with the little resources, especially in the beginning, that we’ve had to work with,” said Rep. Taylor Small (P/D – Chittenden). “This is just the way we work more collaboratively – pushing for who’s being left out in this process, re-evaluate, and make sure we’re doing what’s best for our communities.”

State officials’ plan is to have all Vermonters eligible for vaccines by the end of April, including those who are incarcerated.

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