ST. ALBANS — Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont continued to increase over the weekend, with cases announced at Northwestern Medical Center (NMC) and the Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center. In addition, Vermont saw its first two deaths in patients known to have the disease.
As of Sunday afternoon, 49 Vermonters had tested positive for the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19, a respiratory illness which can cause death particularly in those who are older or have other health conditions.
Two of those cases were tested at NMC. In a statement issued Saturday, the hospital said it was only sharing test results with the public so people would be aware that the virus is here, in Franklin County.
Sixteen of those cases were at Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center. The Vermont Dept. of Health said on Saturday that epidemiologists were at the facility providing guidance to the facility and others in the state which may have a positive test.
One of the two Vermonters who died from the illness was a resident of Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center. The other was a patient at the VA hospital in White River Junction. Both were in their 80s.
“With this sad news, I know Vermonters across the state join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of these two Vermonters during this difficult time,” said Governor Phil Scott. “I know some are feeling scared, worried and overwhelmed, but I want you all to know that we will get through this because we’re all in this together.”
“All of us at the Health Department are feeling these first losses very deeply – and I want to express my deepest condolences to the patients’ loved ones, friends and family,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. “When COVID-19 first appeared in Vermont, we sincerely hoped the state would be spared such losses. Unfortunately, this new coronavirus can be very serious, especially for vulnerable Vermonters, such as people who live in closed settings like long-term care facilities.”
The Health Department has prioritized identifying and testing any symptomatic patients and health care workers at the Burlington facility following the initial positive tests. The facility is checking the temperature of all staff before they enter the building and having employees who are symptomatic stay at home.
“All of us at the Health Department are deeply concerned with the news of these additional positive cases” said Levine. “Unfortunately, this new coronavirus can be very serious, especially for vulnerable Vermonters, and we have seen long-term care facilities across the country struggle to contain the virus.”
Coronavirus testing remains limited with health care workers and those at greatest risk from the illness remaining a priority for testing, including patients and staff of long term care facilities.
To reduce the spread of the illness, Scott closed schools last week, followed by restaurants and bars. Over the weekend, he extended that order to gymnasiums, fitness centers and similar exercise facilities, hair salons and barbers, nail salons, spas, and tattoo parlors, all of which were ordered to halt all in-person operations no later than 8 p.m. on Monday, March 23.
The intent was to close any businesses where it is not possible to work and remain six feet away from others at all times. Six feet is considered a safe distance for reducing transmission of the virus.
“As I’ve said throughout this crisis, I will continue to act to slow the spread of this virus in Vermont because we must protect those at greatest risk of serious illness and ensure they can get the care they need, when they need it,” said Scott. “We will continue to make decisions based on science and guidance from our experts. I don’t make these decisions lightly and my heart goes out to these workers and small business owners who are feeling the negative effects.”
At NMC, the hospital is separating urgent care patients who have symptoms of possible coronavirus infection from other patients as of today. Those with a fever, cough or shortness of breath will be seen at St. Albans Urgent Care on the NMC campus. Those who do not have respiratory symptoms are being instructed to go to the NMC urgent care facility on Route 7 in Georgia.
“In recent weeks, NMC has been preparing for the eventuality that there would be cases of COVID-19 in our community,” said Dr. John Minadeo, NMC’s Chief Medical & Quality Officer in a statement released Saturday. “Important steps have been taken to reduce possibilities of exposure within the facility and properly care for patients who may have this virus. Our preparations and processes have served us well.”
NMC has repurposed a decommissioned patient care unit into a dedicated inpatient COVID-19 Response Unit and admissions to that unit have begun. As per Vermont Department of Health guidelines, patients who test positive but who do not require hospital admission will be directed to self-quarantine at home.
“While NMC is well prepared for a first wave of COVID-19 positive patients, we are naturally concerned about the possibility of large volumes of patients arriving in short time frames, so we greatly appreciate community efforts to flatten the curve such as social distancing,” said Minadeo. “We encourage everyone to take the simple steps of washing their hands, coughing into their elbows, and staying home if you are sick.”
The Health Department is recommending that everyone remain six feet away from others; wash their hands for 20 seconds with soapy water frequently, including before eating; and stay home if sick, even if the symptoms are not those of coronavirus.
People who suspect they have coronavirus but whose symptoms don’t require hospitalization are asked to call their doctor rather than just showing up to a doctor’s office, emergency room or urgent care facility.