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Health Commissioner Tests Negative For COVID-19 As State Prepares To Ramp Up Vaccinations

Dr. Mark Levine stands at a podium next to a screen
Screenshot
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ORCA Media
After an exposure to a COVID-positive contact at recent press conferences, Health Commissioner Mark Levine says he has tested negative for the disease. He will be tested again in a week, and is shown here at a prior press briefing.

After an exposure to COVID-19 at two of the state's recent coronavirus press breifings, Health Commissioner Mark Levine is among a handful of state officials in quarantine. For Levine, that means launching the second phase of Vermont's vaccine rollout, which begins next week for residents aged 75 and older, from home.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Dr. Mark Levine about his experience in quarantine and what comes next for vaccine distribution. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, you're currently in quarantine and I understand you've been tested for COVID-19. Do you have a test result yet, and how are you feeling?

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine: Yes, thank you for asking. I was tested yesterday and I'm happy to say my test was negative, which bodes well for the Friday exposure, since it was about five days after that. And I'm feeling fine. Thank you.

Has the administration planned for something like this, a COVID exposure or positive case associated with these press conferences where a lot of different officials are together at the same time?

I don't think we've ever really planned for it. I mean, I think we all know that [there] is a very, very slight increase in risk. But, you know, we're in a very large auditorium. We've been doing — as you know — well over 100 press conferences, essentially without incident. So certainly it wasn't something that we had thought was going to be a problem.

More from VPR: State Officials Clarify Vaccination Priorities Through The First 225,000 Doses

OK, but I mean, did it feel unexpected, just given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community right now?

It did feel a little unexpected, since I think — you know, I can speak for the governor and myself, not everybody in the room — but we've been extraordinarily careful in our own personal lives. And clearly the press conferences, we've tried to make really a role model experience.

I want to turn to the vaccine rollout. Next week, Vermonters age 75 and older will be able to begin signing up for vaccine appointments — either online or by phone. And the administration has really urged the public to use the online portal.

We've heard from Vermonters who don't have access to the internet, and the administration has encouraged younger people to help older relatives navigate the online portal. But I'm curious what specifically your department and the administration is doing to ensure that all Vermonters 75 and older — regardless of their access to the internet — have the ability to sign up for a vaccine appointment?

Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of this will be the meat of the press conference tomorrow. No matter what, there's going to be a way for someone to access the systems, whether it be by telephone or by the internet. I can say candidly that in setting up my own test for yesterday, it's a very similar system, the same kind of platform for what we're using for the vaccines. And I really had a very smooth course for entering the necessary information and getting a test scheduled.

More from Vermont Edition: Is The State Of Vermont Doing Enough To Address Racial Inequities In Its Vaccine Program?

But it will be up to individual residents to seek out an appointment themselves, right? The health department is not going to get in touch specifically with individuals.

You're correct.

I'm curious why this process is not being funneled through primary care providers, particularly for older patients who may be in regular contact with their PCP. I mean, is there a reasoning behind the choice to have individuals go through the state rather than through their doctor?

Yes, it's a very pragmatic reason. I can tell you the vision has always been to include primary care, to include the health care system. However, with an allocation of literally 8,000 +/- doses per week of vaccine, it's just not feasible.

Also, knowing the storage requirements of these vaccines in terms of temperature sensitivity and making sure we don't waste any doses due to spoilage, making sure that, you know, all Vermonters have the same access to the vaccine across the state, it just would not be able to do that with this low number of doses.

President Biden has set a goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the next 100 days. Speaking of the supply of vaccine, do you expect changes at the federal level to substantively change Vermont's ability to roll out vaccinations in the coming months?

You know, I would like to provide as optimistic a point of view as possible, but I think even the Biden administration is now discovering some facts regarding the fact there is no national stockpile. They're learning facts about how quickly the manufacturers can provide the vaccine and go through the quality control process so it can be allocated. So, I'm going to be very reserved in my enthusiasm, because I think they are finding the same thing. I would expect more clarity and transparency over the next literally one or two weeks, though.

Well, I want to turn to another issue around vaccines. Yesterday, The Bennington Banner reported a death in the Vermont Veterans’ Home. But that story also noted that about 60 staffers there out of around 200 have declined to take the COVID vaccine.

What does it mean for Vermont's vaccination strategy that there's apparently a certain level of mistrust among some who work with vulnerable populations about taking the vaccine?

I'm going to spin your statistics and say that was a 70% uptick. Sixty out of 200 did not want it; seventy percent accepted the vaccine.

So that's a percentage that you see as sufficient?

Well, sufficient is hard to know because nobody knows what level we need for true herd immunity. But I would regard, in the first weeks of a vaccine being deployed on a large population basis, 70% being superb.

We're hearing from many rural states that the number of people in long-term care facilities who are staff there that took the vaccine was 40% or less. So, if Vermont is at 70%, that would be wonderful.

We do have some early data on a more aggregate level for the long-term care facilities, and we're in the 60-70% range so far, for uptake by staff. And the number I heard is almost astounding: 92% for the residents of those facilities. So, I would consider both of those very promising and very encouraging.

More from VPR: Vt. Works To Slow COVID-19 Outbreaks At Nursing Homes As Vaccine Approaches

Given this recent scare in the administration, having a positive person in the last two press conferences, do you think you and Gov. Scott and others in the administration should get vaccinated sooner than planned and not just wait for your age group to come up?

I think if one of us was really incapacitated by the virus — God forbid that would happen to any of us — we might want to consider that.

But I really do think that we have learned how state government can successfully be conducted with people remote. So even though we are now really remote, we've really learned how to use all of the media platforms that allow us to conduct the business very, very effectively. So, we're not actually doing anything markedly different this week than we've been doing for months and months through the pandemic.

Well, you've been leading the response to this pandemic for about a year now. Has this past week, having to go into quarantine and having a potential exposure yourself, has that brought you any new insights into the virus or the state's response to it?

Oh, absolutely. We've been very, very careful [sic]. But again, when a virus is all around us, you can try to be as careful as possible, but things like this may still happen.

What I'm learning is, you know, we've asked countless Vermonters to do exactly this when they have a potential exposure during the pandemic, to quarantine. And while I knew it probably wasn't easy for a lot of people, I never had to do it myself. So, this is a great learning experience for me and perhaps a teachable moment for others. It is possible to do this, and it is important that we try to protect others as much as possible.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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