Health Care

Parents can get rapid tests for their kids before schools reopen, Scott says

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Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a press conference in Montpelier on Oct. 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont plans to give out 80,000 rapid tests to parents across the state for them to test their kids before they return to school after the holiday vacation, Gov. Phil Scott announced at a press conference Tuesday.

Details about those tests should be available in the next few days, Scott said. The rapid antigen tests can be performed at home and provide results within about 15 minutes.

Education Secretary Dan French said the state is planning a shift in the testing strategy it recommends to schools. “Test to stay,” where exposed students can stay in school and get tested each day, will continue — but in the future, the state plans to have schools give parents antigen tests to administer to their children, rather than have the schools run the testing program themselves.

However, there is a drawback to parents testing their own kids: It limits the amount of data Vermont can report on Covid-19 cases in schools. 

“We saw these data lose some of their currency with a Delta variant,” French said. “And we expect Omicron will further challenge the timeliness of these data.”

The shift comes amid concerns about the highly infectious Omicron variant causing staffing shortages across the state, including in schools. French said Vermont may see schools closing because of it.

“We know that we have limitations in terms of workforce across all sectors. So we’re watching this not just in the education community but throughout every sector across the state,” Scott said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidance Monday on how people should isolate or quarantine after a positive test or exposure.

Under the CDC guidance, people should isolate for at least five days after a positive test but can go out in public with a mask for the five days after that if they are asymptomatic, rather than isolating for a full 10 days. The guidance is similar for unvaccinated people who need to quarantine after an exposure.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Levine said the state was adopting the CDC’s new guidance “effective immediately” and would review it further to understand its impact on the health care system and congregate settings. The department changed its website on Tuesday to reflect the new guidance.

But later in the press conference, Scott appeared to contradict Levine’s statement, saying the state had been considering its own approach and might still adopt guidance that would be “a little bit different than the CDC.” State officials, he said, had not been able to convene to settle the matter.

“We may come up with our own version of the CDC guidance that we think might be more appropriate for Vermont,” Scott said. “We want it to be sensible, we want to be able to use it across different sectors as well, and keep people safe at the same time.”

French said the state also plans to provide LAMP tests to replace PCR tests in schools, which are usually used as surveillance tests on a weekly basis. LAMP tests are similar to PCR tests but provide faster results.

Vermont reported 201 Covid-19 cases in K-12 schools in the past week, although those figures may be affected by the holiday break.

The state is also providing antigen tests and LAMP tests to Vermonters this week to prepare for holiday gatherings. Testing sites are providing take-home antigen test kits to households on Tuesday and Wednesday on a first-come, first-served basis.

Scott admitted the testing supply has not lived up to demand as Vermonters have lined up across the state to obtain test kits. 

“We only have a certain amount of antigen tests we can distribute,” he said, and Vermont is working with the federal government to increase its supply.

Just as in schools, the distribution of antigen tests to the general population has the potential to throw off future data collection about the pandemic. 

“We might hope that people who test positive (with an) antigen test will call in and report that. The reality is probably not,” Levine said. The health department website has a link to self-report antigen test results.

The positivity rate — the percentage of tests that come back positive for the virus — may increase, he said, as more asymptomatic people opt for antigen tests over PCR tests. 

He also warned that, with Omicron, the data will likely show a dramatic increase in cases in the coming weeks, but the more important metrics are not cases, rather hospitalizations and deaths. 

Data from other countries and states so far shows that Omicron is less severe than previous variants, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

[Looking for data on breakthrough cases? See our reporting on the latest available statistics.]

Covid cases are up 63% nationally in the past week, but hospitalizations have risen only 3%, he said. Hospitalizations tend to lag behind case reporting.

In Vermont, cases have risen just 4% in the past week and hospitalizations have fallen 3%, he said. On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported 416 cases. Fifty-five people are hospitalized with Covid-19, including 15 people in intensive care units.

But the state also forecasts an increase in Covid-19 cases in the next four weeks as Omicron becomes more prevalent and holiday-related cases start cropping up, Pieciak said.

The department added four more Covid-19 deaths to its data Tuesday, bringing December’s death count to 47, compared with November’s 42. In total, 465 people have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

In his final week as secretary of the Agency of Human Services, Mike Smith thanked his agency’s “dedicated” employees, the governor for his “leadership” and the Vermont public for “sticking together” throughout the pandemic.

Smith has been a leader of the state’s response to the pandemic.

“One person leaving is not going to change the course of our response,” he said. “My only hope is that, along the way, I helped to make a difference while I was here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quotation about new CDC guidance to Dr. Mark Levine. It was actually voiced by Gov. Phil Scott.

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Erin Petenko

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