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Reporter Debrief: Over 40 Vermont Health Care Workers Test Positive For COVID-19

A beige mobile mini trailer in front of brick buildings.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
The mobile clinic set up in the University of Vermont Medical Center emergency room parking lot in preparation for a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Over 40 doctors and nurses at hospitals and eldercare facilities have gotten sick with COVID-19. Seven Days reporter Derek Brouwer has been reporting on Vermont medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Seven Days reporter Derek Brower. Their interview is below and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Do we know how many health care workers who have gotten sick were involved directly with patient care?

Derek Brouwer: We really don't, particularly because hospitals aren't releasing that sort of information — either because they aren't sure, or because they want to protect a patient and employee privacy — is what I’ve been told. But there certainly are some indications in some instances [direct patient care] has been a factor. I think the obvious example is Burlington Health & Rehab nursing home, where more than 14 staffers have tested positive and there are over 20 resident cases.

Are these cases of sick medical workers spread across the state, or are there a few hotspots?

I'm aware of hospitals in at least four counties that have cases. But as we're seeing with the virus in all circumstances, it's concentrated in Chittenden County. University of Vermont Medical Center has at least 16 staff cases, some of which they said involves employees who are providing patient care. And as I mentioned, there's 14 at Burlington Health & Rehab Center, which is also in Chittenden County. So really the vast majority of cases are centered around Burlington.

Has the state been tracking these cases at all?

It's really unclear if they are tracking it. I would imagine they do have some data, but this is not a data point that they have been releasing publicly, or were willing to provide me for my reporting this far.

This isn't especially unusual. Some newspapers in other states — in Massachusetts, for example — are gathering this data themselves, and releasing it. If we see larger numbers of hospital employees and other health care workers getting infected to the point where it's really disrupting the services and the treatment that they can provide, I think we'll start to hear more from either the state or the hospitals directly about what's going on.

Hear a first-person audio diary from a UVMMC health care worker in the latest Brave Little State.

You know, you just anticipated my next question: Will this have an impact on the ability of the health care system in Vermont to function properly?

It certainly could. Burlington Health & Rehab had to truck in more than a dozen nurses to backfill all the employees that were either sick or quarantined because they had been in contact with somebody who was sick.

So that's the big concern here — that this could become extremely disruptive to hospitals and other health care settings, as the surge of COVID patients comes in the next few weeks.

UVM Medical Center in particular, though, said that they they've been anticipating this and have a bench, three to four staffers deep, for each position. So they, at least, are expressing confidence right now that they have a plan, and are going to be able to handle any problems on this front.

By definition, caring for the sick during a pandemic is a dangerous job. Do the health care workers that you've spoken to feel like they have the support they need, that they're sufficiently protected?

I think at this point, those that I've spoken with do have the personal protective equipment, so masks, gowns and gloves and whatnot.

I think they are nervous about the masks, but at least at the UVM Medical Center, those are being conserved in certain ways.

So in the ICU unit for instance, a nurse I spoke with told me they’ve been limited to one mask and one patient per day. At the end of the day, they put the mask in a paper bag. They're not reusing the masks right now, but there is a hope that sterilization technology could become available very quickly. That's one of the ways, I think, they're planning for a crisis ahead.

But at the moment, you know, they do have that equipment. There is certainly a lot of fear amongst these frontline workers, not just that they would get infected themselves, I think, but that they could unwittingly infect their family members or the patients they work with at the hospital. So when we're talking about these PPE supplies, and health care workers crying for those, it's not just for themselves. It's for the people they’re caring [for], and everyone around them.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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