Health Care

Hospitals prepare for arrival of COVID-19 in Vermont

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Medical personnel wearing PPE — personal protective equipment — transport a patient/actor who presented with Ebola symptoms to the University of Vermont Medical Center during a drill on June 18, 2019. UVM Medical Center photo

Hospitals around the state are preparing their staff — and the public — for a likely outbreak of the coronavirus, but the message at this point is keep calm and carry on.

As of Wednesday afternoon, no one in Vermont has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. 

Still, with two positive cases in New Hampshire, hospitals are preparing for what they see as an inevitable spread of the virus into the state. Staff are being trained, quarantine space prepared, and some are conducting public relations campaigns to assuage concerns.

“Expect to get sick at some point,” said Josh White, chief medical officer of Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, in a press release Wednesday. “Almost all of us are going to get this eventually, and if you don’t get coronavirus, you will get a cold that feels exactly the same.”

The University of Vermont Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, has plans for isolating patients and testing for the virus. 

Coronavirus patients at UVMMC will be isolated in “negative pressure rooms," whose ventilation systems prevent air from the room from entering the hospital hallways. If those rooms fill up, a wing has been set aside for overflow patients, said Timothy Lahey, a UVMMC infectious disease doctor who’s helping to coordinate the response.

UVM Medical Center has the capacity to run 68 ventilators at a time for both children and adults, according to Lahey. The hospital has never before come close to using that full capacity, he said. 

The medical center has also stocked up on masks and gear, and is teaching its staff and medical professionals at outlying clinics how to properly use protective wear. 

The University of Vermont Medical Center has completed tests, said Lahey — all negative. State epidemiologist Patsy Kelso declined to say which hospitals had collected the specimens for the three negative tests the state has reported. The Department of Health also reported that a New Hampshire resident who had tested positive had attended an event in Vermont last week. 

The state currently has kits to test 250 people for the virus, said Health Department spokesperson Ben Truman. 

That capacity could increase soon. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced Wednesday that the state will receive at least $4.9 million in grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including cash for lab testing and infection control.

The medical center is receiving a flood of calls from patients hoping to get tested for coronavirus, Lahey said. It has devoted a section of its website to patient information on the virus.

At the direction of the CDC, UVMMC is loosening its guidelines for who can be tested, he said. Previously, only those who had traveled to a country that had experienced an outbreak could be tested. 

People who have tested negative for the common cold or flu, and who are really quite sick, can be tested. 

“Curiosity alone isn't the driver,” Lahey said. 

One aim is to avoid having people with a cold to be exposed to those with coronavirus in the hospital, he said.

At Porter Medical Center in Middlebury, staff have been trained on “airborne precautions, contact procedures and other standard procedures,” according to spokesperson Ron Hallman. They’ve also distributed materials to staff and posted information online. 

In a press release Wednesday, Gifford Medical Center advised Vermonters not to stock up on masks and to avoid basing their response on media reports that can spread misinformation. 

The University of Vermont College of Medicine is hosting a free webinar for the public on Thursday from 3-4 p.m.

All hospitals are in regular communication with the Department of Health.

For now, White, Gifford’s chief medical officer, urged residents to keep calm.

“This community has weathered challenges in the past with dignity and a measured approach, ranging from the anthrax scare after 9/11 to H1N1 in 2009,” White said. “I expect that we will handle this situation with aplomb as well.”

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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