Testing, Guidance, An Outbreak In Addison County: Checking In With Health Commissioner Mark Levine

Oct 6, 2020

"Testing is not prevention." That was the message relayed by Health Commissioner Mark Levine during Friday's COVID-19 press briefing. This hour: it's our weekly COVID-19 health update. We check in for the latest numbers and guidance, and get an update on Champlain Orchards, where 27 farmworkers have tested positive for the virus.

Our guests are:

  • Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner for the Vermont Department of Health
  • Julia Doucet, outreach nurse with the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury

Broadcast on Oct. 6, 2020 at 1 p.m.; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find the full interview with Julia Doucet of the Open Door Clinic here.

Jane Lindholm: Dr. Levine, How many people remain in quarantine or isolation now at Champlain Orchards?

Dr. Mark Levine: There are about 25 or 26 people who are in isolation housing, which means they were identified as positive cases. There are five people in onsite quarantine housing, who were part of this cohort but have not tested positive.

One person is in the hospital.

Dr. Levine, are all 27 positive cases contained only to the men who came here most recently in September?

There was a cohort of 29 [quarantining together].

I believe, with the exception of one individual, that [the 27 people who tested positive] were all part of the same cohort. And the one other individual actually lived on another part of the property, but was involved with driving the workers to various parts of the orchard.

From your perspective, Commissioner, did the quarantine process work effectively?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, this is the last group of workers that we're aware of coming into Vermont for 2020. And everyone has been very compliant up until this point with similar quarantine processes. So the reality is, quarantine is a successful intervention for the state to exercise.

It seems half-effective, if you consider that the cohort that quarantined together appears not to have, at least so far, spread the virus outside of that cohort.

On the other hand, it appears we've seen tremendous viral spread within this particular small population that are all quarantining together in very close quarters.

Absolutely. This is behaving somewhat like [an outbreak at] a nursing home, or a correctional facility or on a cruise ship, where people are all housed together in one place.

You would hope that you could find the earliest case early enough, so that you could then successfully quarantine the remainder of them in a different location and not have this many people become infected.

More from VPR: 27 Farmworkers In Shoreham Test Positive For COVID-19

You've identified who the original case may have been. Are you certain that this person contracted the virus outside of Vermont?

Yes, because the entire time they were here, they were in quarantine, and they became symptomatic towards the end of the quarantine period.

Is there any concern that this person could have infected other people in transit between Jamaica and Vermont?

It's possible, but pretty unlikely I think, based on the day symptoms began.

Do other workers at Champlain Orchards who live in Vermont communities have to quarantine?

If they have been in that close contact, yes. Through contact tracing, we've been able to identify who is at risk and who was not at risk. And the predominant risk was really to the cohort, and not widespread throughout the entire operation.

Likewise, the public is not at greater risk from this either. Things were very much contained, as a quarantine should be, such that there are not a lot of contacts to trace because the contacts are the people you were quarantined with.

How can we financially assist or protect these workers and others who may not have access to federal COVID relief or paid ­time off, or be able to maintain a salary while home due to health concerns, if they’re out of work for two weeks or more?

As H2A workers, these employees are very accustomed to earning their money and often wiring it back home to their families. This is on the top of their minds as well.

The Agency of Agriculture is actually working with business owners to make sure they can get access to grant funds from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. That apparently provides reimbursement for up to 80 hours of sick leave if you have to isolate or quarantine. These workers would all be eligible for that sick leave time because they’re employed for a long enough time in this country. They won’t get that sick pay today, but they should get it.

The process is underway to get them these grant funds.

How do we make sure people are able to get the health care they need, especially when it’s treatment for an infectious disease that could affect other people, if they held back for fear of not being able to afford treatment or take time off from work due to severe financial consequences?

As a public health official, the issue of health equity comes up all the time. Part of health equity is not only being able to live in circumstances that can allow you the opportunity to be as healthy as everyone else, but also having access to the services you need when you need them.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.