The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Seven inmates and one staff member at the Maine State Prison have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Tuesday.

The positive cases were identified through rapid antigen tests and the Maine Department of Corrections is awaiting confirmation through lab tests for the eight individuals. If the lab tests ― which are more reliable in detecting cases ― come back positive, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will open an outbreak investigation, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said in a news release Tuesday.

The seven inmates who tested positive live within the same housing unit at the prison. The department has begun testing other inmates who live in this housing unit, as well as staff members who work in and around the unit.

The Warren-based prison is the state’s largest correctional facility. It currently houses about 700 inmates, according to the department.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison has largely been spared from a widespread outbreak unlike some other correctional facilities in the state. Last fall, an outbreak at the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham resulted in more than 140 positive cases.

Including the cases reported Tuesday, a total of 10 inmates and 10 staff members at the Maine State Prison have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past year.

The new cases at the Maine State Prison come alongside an announcement that the Maine Department of Corrections will begin administering vaccinations to the 150 inmates who are 60 and older. These individuals are eligible for vaccination under the state’s age-based vaccination plan, according to Tuesday’s new release.

The state’s correctional facilities have seen some of the highest case numbers in congregate settings to date. The outbreak at the Windham prison accounts for 147 of the total 164 positive cases detected among inmates systemwide since the pandemic began, according to DOC data.

But Maine has yet to vaccinate that population, with some public officials arguing that vaccinating prison staff — who have been eligible for weeks as part of the state’s first responder group — should prevent the virus from getting into the population.

The Department of Corrections has been working with the Maine CDC to determine how to facilitate the vaccination of inmates under the state’s age-based vaccination plan, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said during a press conference Tuesday.

“There are a lot of logistics going on given the different [correctional] facilities but that is something we’ve been thinking through, analyzing and getting the data on and now we’re moving out with it,” Shah said.

The additional supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the state expects to receive has made it possible for the department of corrections to begin vaccinations next week.

As the state moves forward with the age-based vaccination plan, additional inmates will be vaccinated, Shah said.

“We’ve got that supply that we weren’t expecting which allows us to move toward vaccinating this group of age-eligible individuals,” Shah said.

Shah could not say for certain which vaccine the inmate population would receive. Though he noted that the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be the better option for inmates who are within weeks of being released from a facility, since this vaccine does not require a booster.

There are currently no active cases of COVID-19 at any other Maine Department of Corrections facility.

BDN reporter Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the cumulative case count for the prison.