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SVMC triples number of isolation rooms in response to coronavirus

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BENNINGTON — Five more Southwestern Vermont Medical Center patients tested positive for the novel coronavirus this week, just as the hospital is tripling the number of isolation rooms to deal with the virus outbreak.

The medical center has now seen nine patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, since it identified Vermont's first case earlier this month. Four of the patients have required hospitalization, but two have already been released, SVMC's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trey Dobson said Tuesday. 

The new cases emerged as SVMC was setting up more negative pressure isolation rooms, bringing its total from 14 to 42, in order to cope with an expected rise in local cases. Negative pressure isolation rooms aim to contain airborne contaminants, including viruses, within the room. 

Vermont's first COVID-19 case — an SVMC patient from Readsboro — was reported on March 7. As of Tuesday afternoon, 20 new COVID-19 cases were identified among Vermont residents, bringing the state total to 95; seven of the patients have died.

SVMC also has transformed some of its areas, including the ambulance bay, into "respiratory evaluation centers." These enable patients who are potentially infected with COVID-19 to be "rapidly assessed and treated,” according to a statement by Jill Maynard, director of nursing for the hospital's emergency department.

SVMC's approach to battling what the World Health Organization described as a "pandemic" includes halting drive-thru coronavirus testing as a result of the rise in local cases, as well as recommendations from federal and state agencies. Dobson said the service, which started March 7, was ended Friday so that its limited supply of test kits can be reserved for priority cases: hospitalized patients, health care workers who have symptoms and vulnerable populations such as the elderly.

The shortage of test kits nationwide is rooted, Dobson explained, in the low supply of a "viral solution" that is used to preserve specimens after they're taken from patients and transported to labs. Some commercial labs have reportedly started selling newly developed test kits, but he said SVMC has to carefully evaluate their accuracy before using them at the hospital. 

Dobson said closing the drive-thru testing also allows the hospital to conserve on personal protective equipment, such as face masks, gloves, eye protection and isolation gowns. PPEs protect people, particularly health care workers, from the risk of getting the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, the Vermont National Guard is helping to set up three overflow medical facilities as the state prepares for an increase in COVID-19 patients. The facilities will be at Gutterson Fieldhouse at the University of Vermont, the Barre Municipal Auditorium and Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Center in St. Albans, the Guard said Tuesday. The sites will be for the least sick who can be moved out of hospitals safely.

The COVID-19 disease causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. More than 103,000 people worldwide have recovered so far, mostly in China.

Managing symptoms at home

Health experts are advising people with COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and coughing, to stay home if they are experiencing only mild symptoms.

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"People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to recover at home," Dobson said. "Do not leave, except to get medical care." 

But if the symptoms can't be managed at home, including shortness of breath, he advised going to the hospital emergency department. 

People who have mild symptoms and yet belong to what's considered a high-risk group should contact their primary care provider, Dobson said. These groups include people who are older than 60, who have heart or lung conditions or whose immune systems are impaired.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the novel coronavirus can be spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which could then land in the mouths or noses of people nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. 

It's also possible, the CDC said, that a person can get infected by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes. But this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Social connections

Starting Wednesday, SVMC will limit inpatient visitors to only the spouse or partner of expectant mothers, parents of pediatric patients, and relatives of patients at the end of life. Electronic devices with video communication capabilities will be available by request to patients who cannot have in-person visits at this time, the hospital said, citing guidance from the state health department.

SVMC also recommends that everyone who is well strictly practice social distancing.

Social distancing means not visiting with those who live outside your home, limiting trips to public areas and keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from others at all times, said Dr. Marie George, SVMC’s infectious disease specialist. 

Those who are properly observing social distancing, she said, "are sending one member of the household to the grocery store or pharmacy no more than once a week.”

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

This story was updated on March 24, 2020 at 7:11 p.m.


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