By Guy Page
UPDATE 1:40 PM: Dept. of Corrections guards were informed today they will be vaccinated within the next 3-5 days.
Corrections officers at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport say the State’s decision to vaccinate inmates with no timetable to vaccinate prison staff sends a terrible message to the workers and their families and is hurting staff morale.
“Yesterday it was communicated to myself and other staff that although we ourselves have no timetable to be offered COVID vaccination, the inmates at our facilities are scheduled to be vaccinated before staff,” Corrections Officer Benjamin Alexander said in a letter to Sen. Russ Ingalls (Essex-Orleans). “This information has had a tremendous negative effect on morale in my department. I find it unconscionable that DOC staff and our families will be left unprotected while the inmates we are overseeing will be given access to vaccination.”
A Covid-19 outbreak struck the prison last week, according to a report in the Newport Dispatch.
The DOC says one staff member and 21 incarcerated individuals tested positive for the virus. The 22 total cases were detected in testing conducted on Tuesday. The facility was placed in full lockdown upon receipt of the positive results on Thursday. Contact tracing is underway, and Vermont DOC and Vermont Health Department’s Rapid Response Team say they are outlining follow-up actions and testing.
At his press conference today, Gov. Scott said the priority for immunization wasn’t based on inmate or guard status, but on age. There are some over-70 inmates, but no over-70 staff. Therefore the over-70 group that received the vaccine were all inmates, he said. The State is expanding vaccination to prison staff because “that is the only port of entry.” State officials hope to “establish a perimeter” of vaccination around inmates, he said.
The state’s failure to vaccinate prison staff when the outbreak struck sent a negative message about the value of their safety, Alexander said.
“My facility is currently under a state of lockdown due to an emergent COVID outbreak,” he said. “I have been working 12-16 hours every day to cover staff shortfalls during this period, and I am isolating myself at home from my children, whom I have sent to live with my parents as a safety precaution.”
“To think that myself and fellow staff who are making similar sacrifices will not be offered the same degree of protection as the inmates in our facilities makes me feel as though the work I do and the safety of myself, my coworkers, and my family has no value to the state of Vermont,” Alexander said. “It is incredibly demoralizing at a time when staff need all the support we can get to pull through this crisis.”
Academic studies show that inmates are at high-risk, due to living indoors in sometimes crowded spaces. However, they are at minimal risk of directly transmitting the virus to the outside community. Prison staff are in contact with both inmates and the outside community.
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