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Vermont reports zero new cases of COVID-19 as Scott unveils new testing strategy

Published: 4/29/2020 9:29:55 PM
Modified: 4/29/2020 9:29:50 PM

Vermont currently has 862 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the same number as the day prior, according to the state Department of Health’s website — marking the first day without any new reported cases since March 13.

The state also logged no new deaths, but that is more typical. Sunday and Tuesday also had no deaths, and Monday had only one. The state’s number of new cases each day has been on a decline for several weeks.

Gov. Phil Scott at his Wednesday press conference said the zero new cases was “great news,” but added, “one day doesn’t create a trend, and we have to look at the trend lines to see where we’re going.”

Scott said the data also gave him “a little bit of support and comfort” as he continued turning the valve on slowly reopening Vermont’s economy.

Experts and the public have raised questions about whether Vermont is ready to reopen with its current testing rate. Vermont reported 214 new tests yesterday and 142 the day before, a decline from 300-400 tests per day late last week and a peak of 1,300 tests at the end of March.

The state has fallen from among the top five in the nation in testing per person to 11th, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Scott said “with provisions we’re outlining today, this will shoot us up by, we believe, in the top five” once again.

The zero new cases milestone comes as the Scott administration rolls out a new contact tracing protocol meant to identify future cases before outbreaks occur.

Scott said the state would be able to conduct 1,000 tests a day, significantly higher than the recent average daily tests conducted, but well below other recent estimates from other state officials who have said that Vermont can conduct more than 2,000 tests a day.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the state was also expanding the eligibility for diagnostic testing at long-term care facilities and prisons, as well as for the health care workforce.

Starting immediately, Levine said, the state would begin regular follow-up testing at nursing homes and assisted living facilities where at least one COVID-19 case has been confirmed — after three, seven, 10 and 14 days from initial case.

Levine said the state would also start testing health care workers who have come into contact with COVID-19 patients, even if they themselves aren’t symptomatic. And he said the state would test health care workers “needed to aid the health care systems’ restart efforts.”

“Expanding testing to this essential workforce will not only ensure that we keep our health care heroes safe, healthy and ready to respond as they’re needed,” Levine said, “it will also be a critical tool in protecting Vermonters who count on these health care workers for their care.”

Levine added that any prison staff who has come into known contact with a COVID-positive person would be tested. If the test is positive, it would spark facilitywide testing of all prisoners and staff.

For weeks after the outbreak began in mid-March, Vermont was testing only people with symptoms of the coronavirus, even in facilities where cases had already been confirmed.

With the state now increasing testing of asymptomatic populations, Levine said, “you’re actually finding people who were pre-symptomatic stage could be capable of infecting others, and you’re finding them very early on, doing containment with them and with those that you contact trace.”

This strategy, he added, meant that the future spread of the virus “will probably be less severe than the first go-round and we will be poised to do a lot more containment.”

State epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said this new strategy would likely lead to an increase in positive cases.

“We’ve been successful and tracing our current positive cases, we have and will continue to add resources and personnel needed to address any uptick in positive cases that we project may arise with more testing,” she said.

Kelso said Vermont has the staffing and resources to trace up to 500 cases per week, “or even more if needed.” She added that investigators have been tracing closer to 34 cases a week in recent weeks.

She said there are currently 53 staff members involved in contact tracing, with 40 to 50 people who could be added if needed.

Scott said that the steps he is taking to reopen the economy — allowing two people to return to some non-essential offices and five-person crews to begin working in the construction and outdoor economy sectors — could also lead to an increase in cases.

“I believe we’re going to see more positive cases, so that doesn’t create a trend, either,” he said. “And what we need to do is manage that level. And that’s why we’re doing this tracing, and testing and becoming so heavily involved in taking a more proactive approach, because we want to make sure that we control that.”

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