You get the feeling that Human Services Secretary Mike Smith was all prepared for a question about the Scott administration’s refusal to prioritize prison inmates for Covid-19 vaccinations. Because, as it turns out, he was kind of over-prepared.
At the administration’s Friday press conference, reporters were far more occupied with other issues. There were questions about teachers and child care workers and various classes of potentially high-risk cohorts, but the first mention of inmates didn’t come until the one hour, 37 minute mark.
At that point, Joe Gresser of the Barton Chronicle asked whether long-term care facilities near the Northern State Correctional Facility should change their visitation rules due to the Covid outbreak at the prison. Implying, I guess, that the prison outbreak could mean more danger in the surrounding community.
At which point Smith spent three minutes and 21 seconds on a soliloquy that didn’t actually answer Gresser’s question. The time was consumed in a word-salady defense of the state’s inmate vaccination policy. Which makes me think Smith was expecting a barrage of questions on the issue.
For those just joining us, the state’s policy is to consider inmates exactly as other Vermonters are considered. They get vaccinated when their age group or risk group gets vaccinated. No special treatment. Despite the fact that, according to defense attorney and inmate advocate Kelly Green, 44% of NSCF inmates have tested positive. Forty-four percent. If that’s not a high-risk cohort, I don’t know what is.
After the jump, I’m going to provide a transcript (my own) of Smith’s entire disquisition and then make some comments.
Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride…
In our correctional facilities, we have a philosophy of “test to suppress,” which is being done — which is not being done throughout Vermont. We have sort of mandatory testing in our correctional facilities. And as a result, we’re picking up sort of more asymptomatic Covid positives than would otherwise not [sic] be identified. They wouldn’t be identified if we were just doing testing for symptoms. So as we look at the positivity rate, and I think that’s what we look at as a state, and that’s what we would look at as a, you know, in comparison with a corrections facility as well, and this is the number of positive Covid tests divided by the number of tests conducted, you have to remove some duplicates within 90 day of each other, but if you look at the positivity rates within our in-state correctional facilities, it is 1.5%. Now you’ll notice that the number is basically the same number as the state as a whole at 1.5%, so we really pay attention to that number, and really, um, corrections , I, I think there are some numbers that are really. um, really stick out.
I mean, corrections has done 17,050 tests as of, um, two days ago. And the rate of testing that we do is second in the nation. You know, we both do in-state and uh out-of-state, uh, you know, in terms of, uh, positivity rate, and when you put both in-state and out-of-state, of course we have out-of-state prisoners, we’re the third lowest positivity rate in the nation. But we’re missing out from being number one by three-tenths of a, of a percent. So we’re three-tenths of a percent behind.
But looking at it apples to apples, there’s very few states that have a unified correctional facility like we do. And if you look at the states that have a correctional facility like we do, um, you know, in the Northeast for example, Rhode Island and Connecticut, but there’s also Delaware and Hawaii and others, to all other unified correctional systems in the nation, and of course we’ve had zero deaths and we’ve had a half a percent hospitalization rate. We’ve had two out of 411 that have been hospitalized.
So those are the statistics that we look at when we’re looking at, um, protecting those inmates. And as I mentioned earlier, we are vaccinating inmates in the same way that we vaccinate any other Vermonter, through the age bands, through high-risk conditions, and we’ll continue to do that as we move forward.
I — I don’t know if I answered your question. Did I?
He didn’t, as it happens. Gresser’s good-natured response was “Well, you answered a lot of questions.” That’s not really true either, but it was kind of him to say.
So what did Smith say, and what did he not?
He starts out with a version of the Donald Trump defense: We test a lot, so we find a lot of positives. Later in the paragraph, he undercuts his own assertion by saying the positivity rate inside the prison is the same as for the entire state. If testing was artificially making the state look bad, the positivity rate would be higher, wouldn’t it?
The second paragraph is devoted to a rambling discourse claiming that Vermont ranks among the best in the nation for its prison policy. Which is true, but only according to a single metric: positivity rate. That’s a measure of how many positives per 100 tests. As Smith himself points out, the state has tested inmates at wholesale levels.
Positivity rate says nothing about the ratio of positives to the prison population, which is the real metric that matters.
As for the third paragraph, I honestly don’t know what he means by “unified correctional facility.” So I’ll skip to the rest, which points out the absence of fatalities and the relative dearth of serious illness. That’s nice, but it indicates more luck than skill. The state has been lucky that no serious cases have emerged from the plethora of positives.
Smith also skips over the effects of non-critical illness. Covid can make people pretty darn sick without requiring hospitalization. There will also be an unknown number of long-haulers — inmates who take a very long time to fully recover, or never do.
And, to get to the issue behind Gresser’s question: How many cases have been triggered outside prison walls because of transmission between inmates and staffers who then go to their homes and communities?
In paragraph four, Smith restates the administration’s inmate vaccination policy, which is to treat inmates as if they were part of the general population. This is a really dumb way to look at the issue. Non-inmates can quarantine. They can socially distance. They can avoid crowded indoor spaces. They can make their own decisions about when and where they will go. They can wash up as often as they want.
None of that is true for inmates. And that’s why prison outbreaks are so frequent, not only in Vermont but across the country. (See, just for example, this Time magazine story entitled “Covid-19 Has Devastated the U.S. Prison and Jail Population.”)
The administration has consistently asserted that its policies are based on science and data. But by considering inmates as no different than anyone else, they’re ignoring all the data when it comes to the vulnerability of prison inmates.
One more thing. As I’ve said before, the prison population is (a) not that large and (b) concentrated in a handful of facilities. It wouldn’t take very many doses or very much effort to safeguard Vermont’s inmates, who are under the state’s care and protection.
But the Scott administration doesn’t seem to care. Nor can they really give a good, clear explanation for what they’re doing.