Jerry Roberge, a paramedic at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, in Brattleboro, Vt. tells Karlie Borst, of Brattleboro, how to administer the COVID-19 test during a drive-thru testing site on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Credit: Kristopher Radder / The Brattleboro Reformer via AP

Vermont’s largest coronavirus outbreak in a prison has grown to 128 inmates and 10 staff members at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said Thursday.

The Corrections Department has added medical staff to the facility, which now houses 343, isolated the inmates who tested positive, quarantined those who tested negative, boosted mental health counseling and set up the locked-down facility as if it’s a hospital, including identifying people at high risk, he said. As of Wednesday night, none were symptomatic, Baker said.

“I want to assure everyone that we’re applying every resource, asset to address the welfare of our staff and the incarcerated population that we’re responsible for,” he said.

But Baker said contact tracing has been unable to pinpoint how the virus entered the facility and how it spread to two different buildings.

A staff member who was last in the facility on or about Feb. 16 tested positive in a test that person took privately, Baker said. The Corrections Department tested the entire facility on Feb. 23 and found that 21 incarcerated individuals and an additional staff member were infected, he said. Another test of the facility was done on March 1 and the results showed that 129 inmates and 10 staff were positive. One of those incarcerated individuals has since been released, he said.

“This is a significant and critical event and it’s requiring all hands on deck inside the Vermont Department of Corrections. It’s very concerning to me as commissioner, it’s very concerning to our staff and I know it’s very concerning to family members who have loved ones who are incarcerated at the Northern facility,” he said. People who tested negative were being tested again on Thursday, he said.

Vermont has started vaccinating inmates, following the age bands that the state has set for priority vaccines, Baker said. Vaccinations at the Northern State Correctional Facility had to be canceled this week because of the outbreak, he said. The Corrections Department expects to start vaccinating staff, which were given priority, this weekend, he said.

The state is also expanding eligibility to include people aged 16 to 64 who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at higher risk of complications or death when infected with COVID-19. Starting Monday, people with those conditions in the 55-to-64 age group will be able to make vaccine appointments. The younger group will be able to register the week after that. Baker said he expects that band to “pick up a pretty good chunk” of the prison population because of those chronic conditions.

Lisa Rathke, The Associated Press