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Vermont Ramps Up COVID Mitigation Measures As Virus Surges Across The State

Three men carry a piece of plywood.
Liam Elder-Connors
Members of the Vermont National Guard assemble a field hospital in Essex Junction on Thursday. The site will be used in case hospitals need more capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.

Vermont reported a record 148 cases Thursday, and state officials predict there will be a 50% increase in cases over the next six weeks.

The current wave is worse than when the pandemic first hit Vermont this spring. Back then, state officials frantically set up emergency hospitals and stocked up on gear to prepare for a surge in cases that never materialized. Now they are repeating some of those same precautions, and warn that unless peoplefollow public health guidelines, they may well have to start using them.

On Thursday morning, the sound of drills and hammers echoed through the expo hall at the Essex Junction fairgrounds. The room was a maze of walls made of plywood and two-by-fours. A group of four or five guys from the Vermont National Guard held one wall while their colleague anchored it in place.

The Guard is re-assembling a 200-bed field hospital that will be used to care for non-COVID patients if hospitals run out of space due to an influx of coronavirus cases. There’s also a separate 50-bed pod for people with COVID-19.

Maj. Mathew Lehman, the officer overseeing the build, said they were on schedule to finish by Sunday.

“Most of the wall sections are up, and the wiring is already started and the plumbing is already started,” he said on Thursday.

The state initially set up the Essex Junction field hospital and several others in March as Vermont faced its first wave of COVID-19 — but the site in Essex was the only one to house patients. The field hospitals were mostly dismantledin late Mayback when Vermont seemed to have beaten the virus.

But last week, Gov. Phil Scott decided to redeploy beds in Essex Junction and Rutland as coronavirus cases began to spike.

The field hospitals aren’t the only part of the state’s COVID mitigation infrastructure. Testing will be dramatically expanded; the state plans to open 14 new sites by the end of the month and do 5,000 of tests a day. Anyone can get a test, and it’s free.

Testing sites will be open every day and have evening hours, according to Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith.

“We’re looking at, how do we make it convenient for Vermonters?” he said. “How do we make it that they drive no more than 30 minutes to get a test, making tests available at a time that’s available for them?”

"How do we make it that they drive no more than 30 minutes to get a test, making tests available at a time that's available for them?" — Mike Smith, Sec. of Human Services

The state’s testing capacity has come a long way since March. Back then, you could only get a test if a doctor referred you, and the public health lab processed less than 200 tests a day.

Now, Gov. Scott says the state has around 100,000 test kits in reserve and a network of labs to run samples.

“We’ve come a long ways, and we do have a lot of inventory due to the hard work of many … trying to get as many supplies as possible,” he said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Tests aren’t the only thing the state has stocked up on. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the stockpile of personal protective equipment, like masks, gloves and gowns, is in pretty good shape.

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But Schirling said it’s still hard to get some supplies, like N-95 masks — which is why the state bought special machines to clean them for reuse.

“There are somewhere between seven and 10 sterilization units that have been distributed all over Vermont that give us the ability ... to sterilize and re-use N-95s,” he said.

For most items, the state’s got enough to stock critical facilities for at least 60 days and often beyond that — but Schirling said that could change.

“If Vermont were to in some way go the way of Wisconsin or South Dakota or North Dakota, with 30, 40, 50% of inpatients being COVID patients, those burn rates are going to be in a place we have not projected,” he said.

Plywood walls in a large hall
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
The field hospital in the expo hall at the Essex Junction fairgrounds was being reassembled on Thursday.

The virus is growing at an alarming rate in Vermont, even compared to this spring. Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said it took about 88 days for the state to report it’s first 1,000 cases.

“It took about 142 days to report our next 1,000, and then a mere 23 days to record the most recent 1,000 cases,” he said.

Modeling shows hospitalizations are expected to rise but for now, it appears the state will have enough beds, Pieciak said Tuesday.

The coronavirus is also more widespread than it was in the spring, when it primarily hit Chittenden County. Now every county is seeing an increase.

The Northeast Kingdom, Orleans, Caladonia and Essex Counties, largely escaped the first wave. Now the three counties have seen 85 cases in the last two weeks.

A graph
Credit Department of Financial Regulation
A slide from the Department of Financial Regulation's Nov. 17, 2020 COVID-19 modeling presentation shows the exponential growth in cases in Vermont.

“Anxiety’s high amongst our staff, but I think we’ve done a lot of work to prepare,” said Shawn Tester, CEO of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. The health care facility serves Caladonia and Essex counties.

“The challenge we have is the entire system is under some strain right now,” Tester said. “Typically when we have the sickest of the sick, we get them to tertiary care facilities, whether that’s UVM or Dartmouth, and they’re both very busy right now, so that could put additional pressure on the smaller rural hospitals in the state.”

Tester added that the severity of this wave of coronavirus depends on how strictly people follow public health guidelines.

"The challenge we have is the entire system is under some strain right now." — Shawn Tester, CEO, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital

That's a point that state leaders, like Health Commissioner Mark Levine, made repeatedly during a press conference Tuesday.

“I know we can change our behaviors in time to make a difference to keep our schools open, to keep people working and to protect our health care system and importantly, save lives,” he said.

Levine said it’s especially important as Thanksgiving approaches for people to not gather with anyone outside of their immediate household.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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