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Health officials investigate a mysterious case of coronavirus behind bars

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 4:46 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 12:50 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury remains on lockdown Thursday night after an inmate tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week during routine testing. But the exact source of the infection remains somewhat of a mystery.

“We are ensuring that everybody who is in there has been tested, is asymptomatic. If anyone is symptomatic that is in our inmate population, then they are placed in isolation,” said Rachel Feldman, a corrections spokesperson.

Officials say the inmate had been at the facility for nearly a month, But with all inmates and staff having tested negative, new intakes quarantined, and visitations suspended since March, it's not clear how the virus got in.

“That was one of the first steps we took when COVID made its presence known in Vermont. Right now, visitation is done by video only,” Feldman said.

But health officials say it may not really be such a mystery after all.

”There’s a possibility of what we’re calling persistent positivity. So, it’s possible -- and we can’t confirm it with the information we have -- that this inmate had a previous infection while out in the community. The individual recovered, and then tested negative per DOC intake, but then has a viral load that might just be hovering around the detectable limit,” said Dr. Natalie Kwit with the Vt. Health Department.

That means the inmate would likely not be contagious. While that appears to be the likely case, the UVM Medical Center’s Dr. Tim Lahey says it’s possible for asymptomatic patients to test positive and that people carrying COVID test negative.

"One of the big challenges of testing for COVID-19 is that it is, like every test, imperfect. We know that some people who we subsequently decided really have the disease, tested negative early on," Lahey said.

The lockdown will be lifted when the DOC deems it safe for the inmates. Meanwhile, regular testing and contact tracing will continue at the St. Johnsbury prison.

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