MONTPELIER — Six inmates who were housed at a private prison in Mississippi returned to Vermont and tested positive for coronavirus.

According to the Department of Corrections, the inmates were taken from Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility and arrived at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland on Tuesday.

The department said in a statement all of the inmates were immediately tested and quarantined. A seventh inmate, who remained at the private prison, has also tested positive. State officials said contract tracing is underway to find out how the inmates picked up the virus that causes COVID-19 and to see who else they may have been in contact with.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s Friday news conference, Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said the inmates were transported on a bus and the bus company has been notified. There were two employees from the company on the bus. Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the inmates were brought back to Vermont for programming and release planning.

Smith said the state has reduced its prison population from around 1,600 inmates pre-pandemic to a low of about 1,300. Even so, the secretary said the extra space is being used for quarantine in case there is an outbreak at a facility, or inmates are brought in who need to be in quarantine. Meaning the state still lacks capacity for its out-of-state inmates.

“Having those quarantined facilities available and staffed is particularly important at this particular time,” he said.

There are 219 Vermont inmates in Mississippi, but the department is looking to reduce that number to 180.

Smith said all of the state’s inmates at the private prison, with the exception of 16 who refused and the one who already tested positive, have been tested in response to the seven positive tests.

Vermont dealt with its own outbreak of the virus at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans in early April. Since then, the state has started regularly testing all of the inmates in Vermont and staff.

That didn’t happen for the state’s inmates in Mississippi. Smith said that state had been doing what Vermont was doing at the start of the pandemic and only testing those who had symptoms. That occurred here because there weren’t enough tests at the time for those who didn’t have symptoms.

Vermont boasts one of the lowest infection rates in the country. But Mississippi announced Friday it had seen its highest single-day death toll at 52 new deaths from the virus. The state reported 1,168 new cases. Vermont has 57 deaths from the virus and announced eight new cases Friday.

Smith said Vermont inmates in Mississippi will now be tested regularly like their counterparts in this state.

Though Vermont is responsible for the care of those in its custody, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said this situation shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Levine said this shows the state’s procedures are working because the inmates were tested and quarantined so they didn’t have an opportunity to spread the virus here.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

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