At a June 29 press conference, state officials touted a commercial Covid-19 testing site at a Walmart in Derby.
“We want more testing. So we’re trying to venture out and encourage some of these commercial entities to do just that,” Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health said. “The main commercial entity, thus far, has been the Walmart in Derby.”
That same day, the company closed the drive-thru testing program at its location near the Canadian border, citing too little interest to justify its existence.
On Friday, Vermont announced new commercial testing sites, including Kinney Drugs in Newport and Walgreens in Essex. But even with these new locations, Northeast Kingdom residents say they’re concerned about the lack of available testing in their area — whether it means the region will find it harder to contain an outbreak.
“It calls into question, do we have enough testing, and why is the testing reactively not proactively?” said Patricia Sears, a Lowell resident who is part of a four-town Covid-19 aid group.
The Northeast Kingdom has had only a few pop-up testing sites in St. Johnsbury and Newport, leaving health centers to fill the gaps. But testing through health centers is contingent on referrals from primary care doctors, which are in short supply in rural regions.
Walmart opened its site as part of a nationwide rollout at more than 100 locations. Residents had been able to receive no-contact testing there without a referral from a doctor from the end of May until June 29, said a pharmacist at the Derby store.
“We have one parking lot testing site in Derby, which we are closing due to low demand and the availability of other testing options in the community,” company spokesperson Marilee McInnis said via email.
Others in the NEK said they don’t think there is a need for more testing, considering the light number of Covid-19 cases in the region so far. Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, pointed out that the population in his district is fairly spread out, inherently limiting the spread of the virus.
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“We’re pretty lucky to be up here,” he said.
Smith’s assertion is backed up by data. Orleans, Caledonia and Essex counties have, as of Friday, collectively reported 40 cases since the start of the pandemic. That’s 3% of the cases reported statewide in a region that forms 10% of the state’s population.
Many cases in Vermont were concentrated in more populous areas, particularly in Burlington and Winooski. But Vermont recently had its first rural outbreak. A cluster of cases in Fair Haven, which spread among employees at one workplace, is a reminder that even rural regions can be at risk.
Levine said the state responded quickly to contain the virus there, providing access to testing in the local area that hadn’t been available before.
“Even though people can travel to other communities like Rutland, like Bennington, they’re not exactly next door, and that would not be very convenient for them. So we work with the town and created a site,” he said.
Almost 250 people were tested at the Fair Haven site, he said.
“That’s an example of what we would do in the setting if there’s concern about a part of the state that was having an outbreak, or even just needed access,” he said.
At a press conference on July 1, Levine said the state has data on how many people have been tested in each county, but the information hasn’t been released yet. The data could indicate whether residents of different counties have sufficient access to testing.
The state is also looking into more commercial testing in partnership with pharmacies, particularly for certain groups of people who could use day-of testing, like visiting out-of-staters and certain workers, Levine said.
In some parts of the country, commercial testing sites are more prominent. CVS is operating more than 1,400 testing sites in 33 states. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services partnered with half a dozen companies to expand testing sites, but the federal agency currently lists no sites associated with those companies in Vermont.
Vermont officials announced first steps on July 10. Kinney Drugs in Newport will begin testing one day a week as part of a pilot project, Gov. Phil Scott announced at his Friday press conference, and Walgreens in Essex is preparing to offer testing as well.
Officials are still looking for more participation from Vermont pharmacies.
“Right now, I am personally asking Vermont’s pharmacies and their parent companies to move as quickly as possible to join in this effort ─ for their customers, staff and all Vermonters,” Scott said.
Levine said the health department anticipates more demand for testing, and hopes that health centers will also help fill that gap.
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“There are a number of federally qualified health center sites, all of whom expressed, in follow through, their tremendous enthusiasm to do testing,” he said.
The health department encourages people to contact their health care provider in order to get a test, and there are sites in the Northeast Kingdom where tests are available, with a provider’s referral.
The Health Department’s pop-up sites are meant to be a way for people without Covid-19 symptoms to get tested without a doctor’s referral. There had been two pop-up sites in Newport: one May 21 and one June 15. More than 325 people registered for the first event, said Truman, and close to 70 registered for the second.
But there have been no pop-ups in Orleans County since those dates. That leaves only a site in St. Johnsbury, close to an hour south of Derby, for asymptomatic people in the Kingdom to get tested without a referral.
Sears, the Lowell resident, thinks that’s a problem.
“(For) some of us, especially this north of Route 100, Newport is our place of medical attention, and even then you have to wait, if you call an ambulance, 15 or 20 minutes for the ambulance to get here,” she said.
“We know it’s not convenient, but to add another half an hour to go to St. J — people are going to say, ‘No, no, I’m not coughing that much.’”
Beyond the travel barriers in the large, remote region, Sears said people from Orleans or Essex counties may feel less comfortable getting tested in Caledonia County, rather than nearby, where they may know medical professionals.
The situation in the Kingdom mirrors a longstanding dynamic between more remote parts of Vermont and places like Chittenden County.
“They’re set; they’re good,” Sears said. “The rest of us have to get there from here.”
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