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COVID-19: White River Junction VA to open beds for non-veteran mental health treatment

  • The White River Junction VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on March 16, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2021 9:34:47 PM
Modified: 10/28/2021 6:30:12 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The White River Junction VA Medical Center plans to open some of its beds to adults in Vermont who need inpatient mental health treatment, state health officials said Tuesday.

The use of beds at the VA is a “short-term solution to relieve some of the stress in our mental health system, particularly how it impacts hospital emergency departments,” Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said during a news conference related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He noted that the discussions with the VA came following the closing of 21 beds at the Brattleboro Retreat due to a staffing shortage amid a COVID-19 outbreak and a vaccine mandate for workers there.

The VA will allow civilians to use some of the 12 beds in the White River Junction facility’s mental health inpatient unit, Katherine Tang, a VA spokeswoman, said via email. She emphasized that taking care of veterans remains the VA’s top priority.

“Our mental health staff will review and triage each case referred to us and will make clinically appropriate decisions based on bed availability,” she said.

The VA accepted the state’s request for help as part of the VA’s “fourth mission,” which is to assume a “share of the federal responsibility for safeguarding public health during times of need,” Tang said.

“We believe it is not only our responsibility to aid our surrounding communities when they are in need, but it is the right thing to do,” she said.

Schools differ in COVID strategies

Upper Valley schools are employing varied mitigation strategies as COVID-19 cases persist.

Haverhill schools had a total of nine active cases as of Tuesday afternoon, according to SAU 23’s COVID-19 dashboard. That included four at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School, four at Woodsville Elementary School and one at Woodsville High School.

Masks are required for school employees in Haverhill schools, but under a “targeted mask protocol” students are required to wear masks only after a case is detected, Superintendent Laurie Melanson said.

When there is one positive case in a classroom, students are required to mask up for 10 days and monitor for symptoms, she said. If there are three or more active cases in the school, everyone in the school is required to wear masks for 10 days and monitor for symptoms.

Meanwhile, cases at Mascoma schools appear to be declining, according to an update to the School Board from Superintendent Amanda Isabelle.

“The schools, particularly Indian River, have witnessed beneficial results from the increased mitigation strategies,” Isabelle said. “This, along with increased support from our parents and community, have aided in the decreased cases of COVID in our schools.”

Amid a high number of cases earlier this fall, Indian River School in Canaan limited students’ movement by having teachers rather than students switch classrooms during the day; limited mixing of student cohorts at recess; increased cleaning; and implemented stricter screening processes, Isabelle said in an email. Mascoma schools also require masks.

In addition, Isabelle credited parents with keeping children home when they have symptoms and proactively getting their children tested for COVID-19.

“Our hope is to see this downward trend continue,” she said.

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley, schools in the Orange East Supervisory Union saw an increase in cases in the week ending Monday, according to numbers from the Vermont Department of Health. OESU cases included four at Thetford Elementary School and three at Bradford Elementary School. Waits River Valley School in East Corinth, Blue Mountain Union School in Newbury and Oxbow High School also have had recent cases, Superintendent Emilie Knisley said.

“Currently we are experiencing an increased number of cases in our area that are having a dramatic impact on our schools,” she said in a Tuesday message to families that was also signed by Assistant Superintendent Randall Gawel and Susie Tann, the district’s COVID-19 coordinator. “Most of the cases that require contact tracing are the result of community transmission and require hours of work by our school principals and nurses.”

The message also acknowledged the challenges with child care and work that families experience when students are required to quarantine due to exposure to a positive case. Asymptomatic close contacts can test out of quarantine on the seventh day after they were last exposed to the virus. To that end, OESU is working with Upper Valley Pediatrics, which has offices in Bradford and East Thetford, to run drive-thru “test out of quarantine” clinics for families.

“The goal is to streamline the testing process and get students back in the classroom as soon as possible,” the message said.

Schools in Claremont and Newport continue to see some cases, though fewer than earlier this fall. In the past week, Claremont had seven new cases, according to the SAU 6 dashboard.

On Tuesday, Newport schools had four cases at the middle school and one active case at the elementary school, according to Superintendent Brendan Minnihan. Masks were required at the middle school on Tuesday but not at the town’s other schools, which were not at the three-case threshold for masking set by the School Board.

Springfield, Vt.-area school cases included four at Union Street School and one at Riverside Middle School.

Randolph-area schools saw cases, including three at Randolph Elementary School and one at Randolph Union Middle/High School.

The White River Valley Supervisory Union also saw cases with two at White River Valley High School in South Royalton; one at the Bethel campus of the White River Valley Elementary School; and one at Tunbridge Central School.

Single cases also cropped up at Hartford Memorial Middle School; Ottauquechee School in Quechee; White River School in White River Junction; and Albert Bridge School in West Windsor.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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