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Reporter debrief: Vt. schools will shift COVID testing procedures in 2022

A man delivers a press conference at a podium while another man translates his remarks into sign language.
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Gov. Phil Scott speaks during the weekly press conference on his administration's response to the COVID pandemic on Dec. 28, 2021.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Dec. 28, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

The Scott administration announced big changes to how Vermont schools will approach COVID-19 testing in 2022. That's as the state is still grappling with scarce at-home testing kits. Meanwhile, health officials say they still anticipate a surge of COVID infections after the holidays.

Vermont Edition’s Connor Cyrus spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about the takeaways from the press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: A big topic of conversation today was testing. How people are getting tested, test distribution. Let's start with testing kids. Now, some changes are coming to how Vermont schools will do testing in the new year. It sounds like Education Secretary Dan French is going to have parents take a more active role in the actual testing itself. And schools are acting more like distribution sites, I think is what we heard. But there seems to be a little bit of confusion with that. What did the administration have to say about testing students moving forward?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Yeah Connor, you're right about that. That was a really big piece of information. But it was somewhat incomplete, for sure, right now.

So before the holiday break schools had been have been doing a lot of testing. They've been doing the Test to Stay program. And what Secretary French said today is that they're going to move to try to come up with a way for this testing to happen at home. And that's the part that isn't clear. You heard right at the end there — Gov. Scott said they were still working on the details. This is all predicated on the supply of these tests. This sounds like the state is getting more.

More from VPR: Reporter debrief: What it was like to try and get a free rapid test on Thursday

It sounds like the state is not getting as much as it feels it needs, but when the governor was talking about these test kits, he said that the state was kind of putting a lot of them aside for schools. And that seems to be a real focus. But again, the details are not available right now. I don't think the schools are going to be distributing the tests; it sounded like the state was going to somehow get it into the hands of parents. And that's the part that's not clear — how that's going to happen. And then the testing will be performed at home by the parents. And if the kid tests positive, hopefully they're going to stay at home and not go to school.

That's what we know right now. It sounds like more information is going to come out, even possibly before the end of this week, which seems surprising. But I think that's what the governor said at the end there — that they were going to try to put this plan together before the end of this week.

Hopefully this is good news for these parents who have school-aged kids. Putting testing at schools aside for now, let's turn to the availability of testing more broadly. Now, going into the Christmas holiday, the Scott administration emphasized at-home testing to prevent the spreading of the virus. And Vermonters tried to take advantage of the free antigen test kits, which were passed out by the state. We saw those long lines; we saw people in cars and on foot waiting for these tests. And unfortunately, there just weren't enough. What did the administration say today about at-home testing availability in the days ahead? And how can Vermonters get tests?

Yeah, I think it goes back to the same issue — the supply issue. The governor said a few times that it sounded like they were doing the best with what they had. I think that everybody pretty much admitted that the first day. That was the day that you did your reporting — I think it was the Thursday before Christmas that was really bad. There were long lines; a lot of people were not able to get their tests. I think the condition improved slightly on Friday, we heard from some other VPR reporters that they were able to get in and get out and get their tests.

I think that, you know, it's important to acknowledge those first few days was really a pre-Christmas crush. And there were a lot of people traveling; a lot of people were having friends and family over to the house. So there was a lot of need for the testing. We heard that the state is handing out tests today and tomorrow. I think that the supply is a little better. But again, I think the state is doing the best with what they have.

As far as the PCR tests go — which are the tests you have to get at the pharmacy or doctor's office — it still sounds like we're out a couple of weeks on that. I think we checked the website and you can't get an appointment for those tests until Jan. 5. So it's kind of steady as she goes. And you know, one of the big takeaways, I think, from today's press conference, and also what the administration has been talking about, is that this is the future — the home test. That's going to be happening more and more. The state acknowledged that that is going to have an impact on how the numbers are released. But I think in the next couple of weeks, month, couple of months — more and more testing is going to happen at home with the self-administered tests.

And I just want to ask one more testing question. There seems to be some big changes to how the state is counting these COVID cases and test results as more people test from home. The health department is asking Vermonters to report their at-home test results, which we know not everyone will do. So how does the state plan on looking at data with all of these at-home tests being done?

Again, they've been kind of floating this trial balloon for a couple of weeks now. And I actually asked the governor about this too; I think at some point, and they're not saying exactly when, but we're going to get to a point where they're just not going to report that number at all. [State Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine] has said it's the point when we move from pandemic to endemic, and there's going to be a time when COVID is in our community. It's not going anywhere; we're going to need to live with it. And it's a combination of this testing program — where more people are testing at home and we don't have access to the information — with the very, uncomfortable fact that this is just something we're going to live with.

And they pointed to the importance of focusing on the hospitalizations and the deaths — those are the real important numbers. But as far as what percent of the population is testing, what percent of the population has COVID — it's a tough pill to swallow, but it's not going to matter in the very near future.

Certainly a lot of people looking forward to the time that we can move from pandemic to endemic. That's VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman. Howard, thank you so much for being here.

Yep. Great being with you.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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