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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont Health Officials Preparing For Possible Arrival Of Coronavirus

A blackboard advising people to talk to the health department if they've recently travled to China
Elodie Reed
VPR File
A sign in the office at Colchester Dental Group tells people to alert the Vermont Health Department if they've recently traveled to China, where the novel coronavirus outbreak began.

Updated 9 a.m. 3/3/2020

State health officials said Monday there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Vermont, but there are now reported instances of the disease in New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Health officials say they’repreparing for it in Vermont.

As of Monday afternoon, the state said it is monitoring 57 possible cases of the disease known as COVID-19. The state has completed its monitoring of 15 additional cases.

More from NHPR: First Positive Test Results For Coronavirus Identified In N.H. [March 2]

The respiratory illness has sickened more than 89,000 people around the globe, including 91 in the U.S — where six people have now died from the disease. The outbreak began in China.

While the virus hasn’t been detected in the Vermont, the most important thing for people to do now is prevent the spreadof respiratory illnesses, said the state's health commissioner Mark Levine.

Levine said the way to do this was:

  • Washing hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a sleeve or a tissue, not your hands
  • Staying home when you’re sick, especially with a fever
  • Avoiding contact with people who are sick

More from NPR — A Guide: How To Prepare Your Home For Coronavirus

The state is preparing options for how reduce the spread of the disease, such as limiting public gatherings.

“There's no need to exercise any of these options at this time," Levine said. “But now's the time for all of us to prepare mentally and logistically for possible disruptions to our daily lives."

Gov. Phil Scott said last week his administration was reviewing procedures that have been previously compiled to ensure that state government can operate in the event of a major outbreak.

“We want to be realistic about this,” he said. “We don't have any cases in Vermont at this point in time. But there are many people traveling, coming back, coming in contact with someone else. We just need to communicate and make sure we know about this, and take the proper precautions. Treat this like the flu at this point in time.”

Scott announced Monday evening Vermont Emergency Management has assembled an inter-agency task force to oversee the state's public health response.

Hospitals have also begun preparing for the potential outbreak.

A brick exterior of a hospital.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Rutland Regional Medical Center. Dr. Todd Gregory, head of the emergency department there, said people should try and do a self-assessment before going to the hospital to be tested for COVID-19.

Dr. Timothy Lahey, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said the hospital currently has plenty of protective gear such as masks and gowns, and they're working to maintain the supply.

“The ability of hospitals and clinics to do this can be infringed upon if the general public buys too many masks or too much Purell,” he said. “So I think the advice from the CDC has been to pay attention to washing your hands ... and they specifically said don't go out and buy masks, ‘cause you want to make sure the people that really need it have one.”

Rutland Regional Medical Center also has enough masks and gloves, according to Dr. Todd Gregory, head of the emergency department. But he said RRMC doesn’t have the capacity to test everyone who thinks they might have the disease.

More from NPR: Lessons From U.S. Hospitals Caring For COVID-19 Patients[March 2]

“What we need people to do is sort of, take a deep breath, kind of do an assessment. And if they have, you know, cold and flu-like symptoms, especially as this goes on, it may well be that they have COVID-19,” Gregory said. “The vast majority of people are gonna come through it OK. We need to reserve visits to primary care offices and the emergency room in our hospital for patients who are really sick.”

The Vermont Health Department askspeople who have recently been in countries like China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea, where community spread of the novel coronavrius is ongoing, to contact the health department.

There are several types of coronaviruses, including ones that cause only mild respiratory disease like a cold. Others are more serious, like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

VPR's Bob Kinzel and Nina Keck contributed reporting to this story.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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