State Plans To Ramp Up Testing, Contact Tracing As Governor Reopens Economy
Vermont health officials plan to nearly triple COVID-19 testing in the state and expand contact tracing efforts as the governor takes incremental steps to reopen the economy.
Gov. Phil Scott unveiled the new testing strategy at a press conference on Wednesday and compared the approach to fighting a forest fire.
“Testing will allow us to spot those embers early,” Scott said. “And contact tracing allows us to surround it in order to contain it.”
The state expects to soon be able to conduct up to a thousand tests a day, though Scott said the expansion will not occur overnight.
“It will not be a flip of the switch,” he said. “My team has developed a phased approach in order to maintain the supply chain we need. That means we’ll continue to stockpile materials so we’ll be prepared for any future outbreaks.”
Scott said while he was hopeful the expanded testing would help mitigate the spread of the virus as the state reopens its economy, he urged Vermonters to continue to follow social distancing measures, wash their hands and wear cloth masks in public.
“It’s really up to each and every one of us to make this work,” he said.
The worst outbreaks of the coronavirus have occurred at two nursing homes in Burlington and the expanded testing will first focus on residents at long-term care facilities, group homes and other vulnerable populations, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
"Testing will allow us to spot those embers early and contact tracing allows us to surround [them] in order to contain it." - Gov. Phil Scott
The new approach also includes more frequent re-testing at facilities that have recorded cases of COVID-19.
“We will add three-day, seven-day and ten-day and 14-day re-testing of all residents and staff to prevent community wide outbreaks,” Levine said.
All residents being admitted or discharged from long-term care facilities will be tested as well, even if there are not any reported cases of COVID-19 at the facility.
The state will also conduct more testing among health care workers and will test all corrections staff over the next two weeks, Levine said. Testing will gradually expand to other groups, like home health care nurses and child care workers.
"This is also critical as we begin to ask child care centers to reopen to provide that essential service that so many rely on," Levine said.
Besides ramping up testing, the health department will also increase its capacity to conduct contact tracing. State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said the department plans to add 40 or 50 people to the current team of 53.
The team will be prepared to handle 300 to 900 cases per week, Kelso said.
The contact tracing team will use a new app to check in with infected individuals, as well as those potentially exposed to the virus.
“If they’re a case, they’ll get a daily text, email or phone call, whichever they choose, to check in on their symptoms and recovery,” Kelso said. “And if they’re a contact of a case, they’ll get a daily message to see if they develop symptoms.”
The app does not track people's locations and the user data it collects will be encrypted, according to state officials.
The new testing and containment strategy was announced on a day when, for the first time in weeks, Vermont did not report any new cases of COVID-19. So far, a total of 862 people have tested positive for the virus and 47 have died.
But Levine cautioned that Wednesday's milestone was not a trend.
“We’re in this for the long [haul],” he said. “And we really have to watch trends, watch data on a daily basis, watch for the projected resurgences of disease.”