A growing Covid-19 outbreak in southern Vermont has swelled to 59 people, according to test results from the Manchester Medical Center.
The cases have affected people primarily in Londonderry and Manchester, said town manager John O’Keefe. But seemingly contradictory reports between town and state officials about the surge of cases have sparked confusion among residents and a backlash against the state on social media.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said his department had confirmed just two of those positive cases and didn’t have enough information to label the incident an “outbreak.” But “we do take this very seriously,” he said, urging those who live in the Manchester area to wear masks and maintain social distancing. “We need to allow the data and information to come out.”
The controversy has arisen around different Covid tests. The Manchester Medical Center, a small health clinic in Manchester Center, has been using antigen tests, a new Covid test that offers rapid results. The Department of Health, meanwhile, has not publicly reported those positive tests without the confirmation of positive diagnostic tests called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction tests.
That’s led to uncertainty, conflicting theories, and “a lot of information flying around,” said Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-South Londonderry. “There definitely seems to be a lot of panic in the community.”
The antigen test was first approved by the Federal Drug Administration in May. The test requires a nose-swab test, but can be analyzed in minutes by identifying fragments of the coronavirus proteins in the sample. Tests that come back positive are typically accurate, But antigen tests have a high rate of false negatives, meaning that a person with a negative test result actually has the virus.
According to Levine, the tests are ideal to screen people who have Covid-19 symptoms — but not to determine for sure whether they have the virus. The Department of Health requires a follow-up PCR test before posting the results of the tests on its website. Until then, the state considers a positive antigen test a “presumed positive.”
State officials still treat the presumed case as though it were confirmed, reaching out to the affected person to tell them to stay home and self-quarantine. The Department also conducts contact-tracing, Levine said.
The antigen tests are one of three Covid tests available to Vermonters. The state focuses on providing the nose-swab PCR tests, which screen for active infection. Some clinics and hospitals also offer antibody testing, which measures whether a person has already recovered from Covid.
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Manchester Medical Center is one of the first to offer the tests — but it isn’t the only facility to do so. In Burlington, Russ Scully has offered employees at his tech campus, “Hula,” antigen testing on a weekly basis.
Scully contracts with Garnet Transportation Medicine, an ambulance company that he helped finance, to do the testing. About 30 of his 50 employees are getting tested each week, he said.
Levine has not embraced the tests for widespread use and encouraged everyone in Manchester to get a confirmation PCR test. Of the 59 positive antigen tests in the Manchester outbreak, the state had received PCR results from just seven. Five of those tested negative; two were positive.
It’s unclear whether those who have a positive antigen test and a negative PCR are infected with Covid, according to Levine. The results of the PCR test could be affected by the time in between the test and whether a person has Covid symptoms, he said. “It’s really difficult at this point in time to understand how best to deal with these discordant results because they are truly breaking new ground.”
Town officials said the state’s silence on the new cases pushed them to communicate the information they had. One of the owners of Manchester Medical Center, Dr. Thomas Sterling, is also the town’s health officer.
On Monday, O’Keefe, the town manager, posted on Facebook that 35 people in Manchester and Londonderry had tested positive for the virus with antigen tests. O’Keefe said he’d rather alert people of a possible outbreak too early and be mistaken rather than wait for confirmation and allow the virus to spread unchecked.
“If we have life-saving or life-changing information and you don’t share it with the public, that to me, is unethical,” he said in an interview.
In response to the news, businesses closed voluntarily, including several restaurants and Northshire books, said O’Keefe. People stayed home, possibly preventing further spread. “I think people are doing the right thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Manchester Medical Center went on the offensive on Facebook, defending its use of antigen tests and criticizing the Department of Health’s reporting system. “It is time for Vermont to step it up!” the medical center posted on Facebook.
They also struck back at the nearby Southwestern Vermont Medical Center after it released a statement about antigen and PCR tests, calling the information “confusing and poorly delivered.”
Owners of the medical center didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The posts have sparked conspiracy theories, confusion, and widespread distrust of the state’s efforts to combat Covid-19, said state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover. Some respondents posted on social media about the “deep state” and accused the department of “undermining [MCC’s] positive results.”
“It’s unfortunate that there was intentional efforts to sow distrust in our state testing system on social media by MMC,” said Sibilia. She praised Vermont’s response to the pandemic and urged residents to “work together and not engage in … divisive behaviors.”
O’Keefe said local, not state, officials should take the lead when they have the capacity to do so, but praised the work of Levine and his department. “People should have the utmost confidence in the Department of Health,” he said.
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Since Monday, the Department of Health and Southwestern Medical Center have opened testing sites offering PCR tests in Londonderry and at an ice rink in Manchester. Hundreds of tests have been run, and testing will be available for as long as the public needs it. The state has started contact tracing, which will help determine the source of the outbreak. Levine said he expects more positive cases in the coming days.
The high number of positive test results “is definitely not a false alarm,” he said. “There are going to be positive cases.”
Ellie French contributed reporting.
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