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

Prison, Nursing Home Testing Stays Limited, Despite Expanded Testing Elsewhere In Vermont

A tree outside a single-story building.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Birchwood Terrace is the hardest-hit nursing facility in Vermont by COVID-19. So far, 60 patients and 31 staff have tested positive, and 18 patients have died.

Beginning this weekend, almost anyone in Vermont can get tested for COVID-19 who wants to. That is, except those most vulnerable to infection: People in nursing homes, residential homes, and incarcerated in the state’s prisons.  

Since early April, the state’s policy has been to test people inside such facilities either after they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or after another person in the facility tests positive for the virus.

At first, state officials said they weren’t conducting universal testing in other facilities because of a lack of testing capacity.

More from VPR: A Drive-Thru Swab, Then To The Lab: How UVMMC's COVID-19 Testing Works

“We have often gone beyond the CDC guidelines in terms of testing,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith explained at a press conference on April 10, “but the fact remains our testing capabilities are not unlimited.”

But now, the state’s public health officials are struggling to hit their goal of testing 1,000 people per day. In the meantime, the Scott administration’s explanations for their facility-wide testing policies have shifted.

“I would say that we probably would have enough tests available if that were our chosen tack,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a Monday press conference.

More from VPR: Vermont Corrections Commissioner: 'We Didn't Expect This Number'

However, he added, “Right now, at least from the Centers for Disease Control, that is not the best public health guidance.” He went on to repeat something Secretary Smith had voiced in previous weeks: That a universal test would provide reassurance only “on that one day.”

“That makes no sense either from a moral standpoint or from a public health perspective,” said James Lyall, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU. Prisons and nursing homes, he said “are potential tinderboxes. We know that people can be contagious before they're symptomatic. Why wait? Why wait for an outbreak?”

A third of the state’s known 932 COVID-19 cases and half of its 53 COVID-19 deaths have taken place inside facilities. That's out of a total of 22,505 tests to date.

COVID-19 cases by facility in Vermont:


After an inmate tested positive at Northwest Correctional Facility in Franklin County, 65 additional inmates and staff tested positive in follow-up testing. Inmates at four state prisons have yet to be tested.

Roughly 180 residents and staff of seven Vermont residential facilities have also tested positive. There are more than 170 such facilities in the state. Yet visitation bans for these facilities mean residents can’t just go get tested at a pop-up site like other Vermonters.

Vermont’s long-term care ombudsman, Sean Londergan, called the state’s policy “a little disconcerting.”

More from VPR: 'Losing Sleep, Worrying': COVID-19 Sweeps Through Two Vermont Nursing Homes

“We've seen that in Vermont and in other states, you know, really significant incidents happening in nursing homes," Londergan said. "So I guess I don't completely understand why they wouldn't do more testing and long-term care facilities."

According to the Associated Press, the White House recommended during a phone call to governors on Monday that states begin testing all residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

To date, the state’s policy hasn’t changed.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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