The first person in Vermont to be diagnosed with the coronavirus known as COVID-19 is an adult Bennington County resident who was listed in stable condition in Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
The person arrived at the hospital's emergency department on Thursday with fever, a cough and a high temperature. The patient was immediately placed in a negative-pressure isolation room and was tested for the virus, the hospital said in a statement Sunday afternoon.
The patient was not believed to have traveled abroad to one of the countries with serious outbreaks of the virus, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said during a press conference Sunday. That raises the possibility the person was infected from contact with someone in the community.
Levine stressed that it is too soon to know how the person became infected, and state health officials were working hard to trace the person’s contacts and contain the spread of the disease.
While state officials had hoped to be spared cases of COVID-19, its fast spread in surrounding states made its eventual arrival expected, Gov. Phil Scott said.
New Hampshire health officials announced Saturday two new presumptive positive cases of the virus. One involved a man who on March 1 came into contact at a Hope Bible Fellowship service in West Lebanon with a person later confirmed to have the virus. The church has canceled services, health officials said.
“My fellow Vermonters, I know this news is concerning, but I urge you to put this news into context,” Gov. Phil Scott said. “Though we have our first confirmed case, we individually and at the state level can do much to avoid the spread.”
For its part, Southwest Vermont Medical Center is offering drive-up coronavirus testing for patients referred by their primary care doctor. Emergency department staff wear personal protective equipment, swab patients in their cars and remind the patients to isolate themselves until the results are in — usually within 72 hours. The hospital said it initiated the procedure over the weekend to minimize the chance of exposing patients and staff.
For the general population, precautions include regular hand washing and closely monitoring one’s health for signs of infection. The state has not issued any restrictions on public gatherings or facility closures but has plans in place should that become necessary.
“I think we have to be realistic,” Scott said. “We’ve seen the first, and this may be the tip of the iceberg.”
The virus has sickened more than 100,000 people around the globe and killed at least 3,500 since it emerged in China last December. Vermont is currently monitoring 224 people for coronavirus symptoms, which include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Twenty-three Vermonters have completed a monitoring period with no sign of sickness, and 28 have tested negative, according to the health department.
The first presumptive positive result was publicly announced Saturday evening. Officials were awaiting confirmation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Levine said he didn’t know how long that would take.
The unidentified patient became ill, went to the hospital and was immediately admitted. The patient was being treated in an airborne-infection room to prevent the spread of the disease within the facility and to hospital personnel, Levine said.
“Obviously, this means the patient is on the more serious end of the spectrum of illness,” he said.
The department had a good sense of which medical professionals came into contact with the patient, but tracing contacts with others would take more work, Levine said. While it is too soon to say how the person became infected, the state is working hard to figure that out.
Levine released scant information about the patient — no town of residence, age or even gender, citing the person’s privacy. He said the hospital was expected to release additional information about the patient in the near future.
Levine said the state has “dozens” of people performing investigations and patient monitoring, and he was confident Vermont had the resources to do the work the case requires.
The investigation into how the patient became infected and identifying others they had close contact with “will be as large as it needs to be,” Levine said.
Scott stressed that Vermont is working closely with surrounding states on its response and is in close contact with federal officials to make sure they learn from the experiences of places where the outbreak is more severe.
Levine said the state had sufficient testing kits, but he declined to say how many.
He added that it is crucial that anyone returning from one of the four foreign countries considered to have a high risk of coronavirus infection — China, South Korea, Iran and Italy — go straight from the airport to their home and self-isolate for 14 days.
"The importance of this cannot be overstated," he said.
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine speaking Sunday