Vermont governor Phil Scott and members of his administration have announced the state is significantly increasing and strengthening its testing and contact-tracing programs in order to quickly identify, contain and suppress outbreaks of COVID-19.
In mid-April, the governor began taking steps to restart Vermont’s economy under several guiding principles, including a goal to increase testing and tracing. On Wednesday, the administration laid out that strategy, detailing how even more testing and tracing – coupled with technology – will be used to quickly identify and isolate outbreaks, and better understand COVID-19 in Vermont.
“We have a strong and effective testing and contact tracing program in Vermont, but as we work to keep Vermonters healthy, and slowly and safely restart our economy, doing even more will be critical,” said Gov. Scott. “This expansion of testing and tracing will help make sure that as we slowly ease public health restrictions and put more people back to work, we’re able to identify cases quickly and better contain the virus so we don’t lose ground on our progress.”
Over the last several weeks, the state has expanded testing beyond federal recommendations and built a robust program and strong supply chain. Currently, Vermont provides testing for symptomatic patients referred by healthcare providers and pediatric patients, and universal testing of residents and staff at some congregate living facilities that had a single positive test reported. On average, the state has been conducting about 2,000 tests per week.
Gov. Scott, health commissioner Mark Levine and state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso today detailed a phased-in approach to have the state conduct up to about 7,500 tests per week. The increase will take place in stages over the next month, each expanding on the targeted populations to be tested.
The first expansion will bolster testing for vulnerable populations and health care workers in group settings where outbreaks have been most prevalent. Long-term care and other facilities housing vulnerable populations, and that have had a positive test result for COVID-19, will receive expanded, facility-wide testing. This will include universal retesting of residents and staff who test negative at day three, seven and then weekly after the initial tests. The program will also now include testing of all intakes and discharges, in addition to residents who are regularly treated outside of the facility.
While symptomatic health care workers currently receive priority testing, the enhanced testing program will now test asymptomatic workers who have contact with COVID-19 patients and additional personnel in preparation for potential health care reopenings. All Department of Corrections staff will also be tested over the next two weeks, bolstering the testing protocols already in place.
The second phase will include populations that are key to restarting priority sectors, further focusing on health care and home health workers, as well as child care providers. And as Gov. Scott considers allowing more health procedures, testing would be expanded to many of these patients as well.
The final phase would further expand testing to these populations and allow for testing of some Vermonters who are under a mandatory 14-day quarantine as an option to reduce the quarantine period.
Levine also outlined the principles of the state’s testing strategy, noting: “Throughout our pandemic response, our strategic planning and actions have been evidence-based and science driven. In developing this expanded program, we have sought to focus on Vermonters most vulnerable to serious impact of the virus, to improve on lengthy quarantines for asymptomatic people, and strive to suppress outbreaks whenever they might arise. The health of Vermonters is critical to our Restart VT efforts.”
The state’s contact tracing program will also be enhanced to accommodate this new level of testing. Tracing will be expanded to include the 14 days prior to symptoms for COVID-positive individuals, to try to identify their source of infection.
The Department of Health will engage with cases and their contacts using SARA Alert technology, a text-based monitoring system. The state is able to handle 300-900 cases and their contacts per week under this new strategy. The state currently has 53 trained contact tracers who could handle up to 500 cases and their contacts per week and is implementing a plan to train additional tracers as needed.
“It’s important to understand that as more testing is performed, and as people engage in greater activities, we will see an uptick in the number of positive cases – perhaps by a lot,” said Kelso. “This program is designed to provide the data that will inform state decisions and help us to respond more quickly to what the data tell us about COVID-19 activity in our communities.”
Gov. Scott emphasized the need to be nimble and responsive during this ramp-up and established the Vermont Enhanced Testing and Tracing Task Force, comprising experts from the Department of Health and agencies of Human Services and Digital Services to help monitor new developments and recommend new strategies.