BENNINGTON — Six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Vermont Veterans’ Home, prompting new rounds of testing for staff and residents and contract tracing with those affected — all of whom were said to be asymptomatic prior to their positive test results this week.
Veterans’ Home CEO Melissa Jackson said Thursday that the six positive results were reported after the weekly COVID tests for all staff were taken earlier in the week.
She said none showed symptoms of COVID-19, and at this point it is unclear how the staff members contracted the disease.
In addition to contract tracing being done though the state Department of Health, Jackson said the nursing home is doing an internal tracing involving the six individuals, who are quarantining.
During Gov. Phil Scott’s media conference Thursday morning, covering COVID-related topics, he and other officials said there are no conclusive answers as yet.
“So, to do any contact tracing, it’s going to take a little bit of time,” Scott said. “I’m sure they’re working on that as we speak. But we don’t have any information about that.”
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Thursday that he learned about the positive tests at 4 p.m. Wednesday. The state’s rapid response team was on the phone with the Veterans’ Home at 5:30 that afternoon, he said.
Smith said the rapid response team will coordinate with the Veterans’ Home on how it could assist with staffing and personal protective equipment needs.
“They go over all of that they make sure the needs are met first. And they talk about how do you operate in a potential COVID environment?” Smith said.
Jackson said she suspects, but as yet has no evidence to be sure, that a general increase in the number of COVID cases in the Bennington area recently could be part of the reason.
She said it appears thus far that no event or contact precipitated the outbreak, which involves the first positive test result since March, involving a single staff member.
The staff at the Bennington facility numbers close to 200, she said, and each employee not on vacation is tested weekly.
Since the results were received this week, both rapid, or Antigen COVID tests and the standard PCR tests normally given, are being administered again to residents and staff, and thus far all results have come back negative, Jackson said.
Relatives of the residents were notified, she said, and a teleconference information session was held Thursday morning via Zoom to allow relatives to ask questions.
A COVID-19 vaccination clinic that had been scheduled for Saturday will go ahead as planned, Jackson said.
There currently are 106 veterans or spouses living at the home.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said interviews and contract tracing would help officials learn how the virus spread but warned that a definitive cause might never be known.
“We’re not engaged in a finger pointing exercise, or blaming or shaming,” Levine said. “The reality is … Bennington is currently a little more of a hotspot in the state of Vermont. And because of that, it’s more likely that people will pick up the virus, even those who are really honestly trying to keep themselves and their loved ones very safe.”
As of Thursday, the Health Department reported 158 new cases of COVID-19 in Bennington County in the past 14 days. The town’s police department has six employees out with the virus, including Chief Paul Doucette.
Levine, asked what is driving the rise of cases in Bennington County, said there has not been a single large outbreak at a workplace, school or health care facility fueling the growth in transmission.
Rather, it appears there is simply more of the virus in the community, he said.
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Union, which represents staff at the Veterans’ Home, said his main concerns until more is known are that the administration keep workers informed of the status of COVID-19 infections.
“Communication hasn’t always been good in the past,” he said, and that “can prove a barrier to protection in the workplace.”
Howard added that the outbreak highlights a need for all workers to be fitted for N95 masks, which provide the most protection against COVID-19.
“We have been asking for months to get this done,” he said, because it is important that masks fit tightly to the face to be effective.
Howard also asked the public to remember that “these are people who are putting their lives on the line every day,” as are other medical or emergency workers.
Joseph Krawczyk, president of the home’s board of trustees, could not be reached for comment.