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State to expand COVID-19 testing, contact tracing efforts

No new cases reported in Vermont as of Wednesday morning

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MONTPELIER — Vermont plans to more than double the rate of its COVID-19 testing and greatly expand contact tracing as the state begins to open up its economy, officials announced Wednesday.

This effort will include, starting immediately, expanded testing at group living facilities and testing of all workers in correctional facilities over the next two weeks.

"This goal is incredibly important to restarting our economy," Gov. Phil Scott said at a scheduled press conference on Wednesday. "If you think of this whole pandemic as a forest fire, testing will allow us to spot those embers early, and contact tracing allows us to surround it in order to contain it."

The state reported no new cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning, but Scott cautioned that, although great news, that doesn't make for a trend.

The state has had strong contact tracing and testing already, but Vermont must build on this model — the goal is to conduct up to 1,000 tests per day and about 7,000 per week, which is more than double than what the state has been doing over the last several weeks, Scott said.

Scott has established a testing and tracing task force to help implement this effort.

To date, more than 15,000 Vermonters have been tested since the first case was reported on March 8, according to the Department of Health.

Scott said steps to increase testing have also already begun, and officials plan to phase in further increases over the next several weeks.

"The enhanced testing and tracing will also give us more information on where we may need to focus more of our resources," he said. "It will be a measured approach, and just like our restart strategy, it will not be a flip of the switch."

This state will also continue to stockpile materials to prepare for potential future outbreaks.

It's also important to remember that, no matter how much testing and tracing the state does, it doesn't completely eliminate risk. It's still essential to continue social distancing, Scott said.

'Cannot declare victory'

"As I've said before, we cannot declare victory yet," he said. "But if we continue to rise to the challenge, I'm hopeful we can open up the economy in the near future."

Ever since the pandemic began, the state has worked aggressively to maintain stable, consistent testing, diligently working to expand its stock and forge relationships with private labs to expedite processing of tests, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said at the press conference.

"As a result, we've been able to offer testing to more and more Vermonters over time," he said.

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The expanded testing will first focus on residents of long-term care facilities and other group living settings.

The state has been testing all residents and staff of group living facilities where there has been even a single positive test, but now, starting immediately, that will be expanded, Levine said.

For sites with COVID-19-positive patients, there will be 3-day, 7-day, 10-day and 14-day re-testing of all residents and staff, to prevent community-wide outbreaks.

And for all sites, testing will be conducted at intake and discharge, and for certain residents who require regular care outside the facility.

"That's important because here in Vermont, a very large percentage of the people who have tested positive for [COVID-19] and who are at highest risk for severe consequences have been in these settings," Levine said.

It's "critical" to limit the spread of illness in these populations as quickly as possible, he said.

Testing will also be provided for health care personnel who may have been exposed to COVID-positive patients, but who don't have symptoms, and to health care workers who may be needed to aid the health care system's restart efforts.

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The state is also providing immediate testing of everyone at correctional facilities where there has been a positive test for COVID-19.

As part of enhanced testing, all correctional facility staff will be tested over the next two weeks, Levine said.

The next phase of expanded testing will focus on home health and health care workers who have had direct interaction with a COVID-19-positive person, he said. The state will also increase opportunities for childcare workers to be tested, he said.

Contact tracing

At the press conference, State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso outlined the state's plans to expand contact tracing.

The state is prepared to trace up to 500 cases per week — "or even more if needed," she said. Currently, they've been handling about 34 cases each week, she said.

"We know that with increased testing, we're likely to see a rise in positive cases," Kelso said, adding that as the state begins to open its economy, each positive case will also likely have more people they've been in close contact with.

There are currently 53 people on staff who are trained in contact tracing, and there is a plan to add 40-50 more if necessary, she said.

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Based on each staff person managing two new cases every day, "we think we're prepared with that number for worst-case scenario, should we see that," she said.

The state also plans to use an app, SARA Alert, a secure monitoring and reporting system for public health, to help keep in touch with positive cases and their contacts, Kelso said.

Other states are also using this app, she said.

Data will be encrypted, and certain roles will only have access to the specific data they need to perform particular functions, said Kristin McClure, chief data officer at the Agency of Digital Services.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program

Scott provided an update at the press conference on the state's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was provided for in the federal coronavirus relief bill that was signed into law last month.

The program extends unemployment on a temporary basis to the self-employed, independent contractors and others, who aren't traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits.

That system was put in place last week, and as of Wednesday morning, 9,500 people are in that system; of those, 8,500 are eligible for the program, Scott said.

Thirty-nine thousand weekly claims have been submitted thus far, as individuals are able to file for back weeks.

The first round of direct deposit payments totaling $24 million was set to go out Wednesday, Scott said.

"I know far too many have waited weeks to receive benefits, and I hope that this provides some relief for them," he said.

But, he added, he knows the state has a lot more work to do to get benefits in the hands of all eligible Vermonters.

"And we won't stop until that's done," he said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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