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COVID-19 'Outbreak' At Burlington Nursing Home Prompts Call For Federal Aid

Three people stand by a podium.
John Billingsley
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VPR
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine and Gov. Phil Scott announced Friday the state is requesting help from the Centers for Disease Control with an "outbreak" of COVID-19 at Burlington Health & Rehab.

Updated 1:30 p.m. 3/20/2020

Vermont health officials are requesting help from the Centers for Disease Control as they try to contain a COVID-19 “outbreak” at a nursing home in Burlington that’s already claimed the life of one resident at the facility.

A day after announcing the death of an elderly female resident at Burlington Health & Rehab who tested positive for COVID-19, Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said Friday that four other residents of the nursing home have also tested positive for the disease.

Levine said state health officials have been inside the facility since yesterday to try to contain the outbreak and investigate which residents and workers may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

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He also said his office his office has contacted the CDC and requested they send a team to Vermont “to assist us in the investigation.”

Given the number of long-term care facilities dealing with similar outbreaks nationally, Levine said, “I don’t know how feasible or realistic that is.”

Levine said the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont had risen to 28 by the end of Thursday, and that his office is still awaiting pending tests expected back today.

Gov. Phil Scott joined Levine at the press briefing Friday and said that the state’s first two COVID-19- related deaths, both of which occurred Thursday, underscore the necessity of measures he’s instituted to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Since Sunday, Scott has ordered the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and child care centers until at least April 6. Scott said Friday, however, that the mandatory closure period will likely be extended.

“We’re still increasing the number of positives we’re seeing. The exponential threat is still there,” Scott said. “It certainly looks as though we’re going to have to consider moving that (April 6) date much further forward.”

Scott announced a number of new initiatives Friday to address the economic strain caused by those closures.

The governor said he’ll work with lawmakers to expand unemployment benefits to parents who need to stay home from work as a result of the child care center closures. The Department of Financial Regulation is working with banks and other lending institutions, according to Scott, to waive certain fees and loan repayments.

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Utilities will no longer be able to disconnect customers for lack of payment. And Scott said he’s working with lawmakers to create a new loan program for small business owners whose revenues have been affected by COVID-19.

Scott said he’ll be announcing more measures in the near future.

“I know the steps we’ve taken to slow this virus down are already taking an incredible toll on our businesses employees,” Scott said. “Let me be clear: We will pull every lever and turn every dial we possibly can to support folks through this time, and look towards economic recovery even while we’re closing in on the eye of the storm.”

Levine said the Vermont Department of Health is in the process of monitoring “several hundred” Vermonters for COVID-19. He said the state has gained access to increased testing capacity thanks to the arrival of commercial labs out of state, “which will allow us to test a majority of what we term low-priority test specimens hopefully within a 48-hour turnaround time.”

Levine said Thursday his department is contingency planning for “worst-case scenarios” at hospitals. But state officials declined Friday to disclose preliminary estimates for how many Vermonters could contract COVID-19, or how many of those patients may ultimately need hospital care.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said his department “has engaged internal experts as well as external experts to look at some of the modeling for the best-case and worst-case scenarios in Vermont.”

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Pieciak said that modeling has yielded “initial estimates." He added, however, that when the number of confirmed cases in a state is below 100, “the numbers are not as consistent in terms of the projections.”

“We have those initial estimates internally, but we’re working on getting them with more accuracy before disseminating them broader,” Pieciak said.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said his agency is working to bolster inventory of needed supplies at Vermont hospitals. He said hospitals currently have 153 ventilators on hand, and an additional 87 units are en route to the state.

Smith also said technicians are trying to convert ventilators used for other medical procedures in ways that will allow doctors to use them for patients with respiratory conditions associated with COVID-19.

Smith added that the number of available hospital beds in Vermont went up "significantly" since Thursday after hospitals postponed elective and non-urgent surgeries. As of Friday morning, he said there were 500 beds ready for patients. 

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