Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in the spring
Updated at 6:26 p.m.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Friday that Vermont will increase coronavirustesting at long-term care facilities in response to a worrisome number of recent outbreaks.
Speaking at Gov. Phil Scott's regular press briefing Friday, Levine said he was becoming "more and more concerned" about the growing number of cases at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which have proven to be particularly susceptible to major outbreaks.
"This is causing more patient illnesses, hospitalizations and even deaths," he said, while also making it harder for facilities to maintain adequate staffing levels amid a nationwide shortage.
A list of ongoing outbreaks released earlier this week showed 100 resident and employee cases combined at six long-term care facilities, ranging from large nursing homes to small residential care homes:
41 at Rutland Health & Rehab
38 at Four Seasons Care Home in Northfield
7 at Berlin Health & Rehab
7 at Valley Vista in Bradford
4 at Averill Place in Barre
3 at the Residence at Quarry Hill in South Burlington
Officials could not immediately provide updated figures for those outbreaks at Friday's press conference, but added a seventh facility to the list: Elderwood in Burlington, where 14 residents and two staffers have tested positive. The St. Albans Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center also recently reported a positive case.
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said past experience shows that staffing problems typically arise during the first 48 hours of an outbreak as employees are forced into quarantine. Smith said his agency has been working with hospitals such as the University of Vermont Medical Center to find short-term replacements.
“Nurses are hard to come by these days,” Smith said. “We've been successful in doing that on numerous occasions. But I've got to admit, it has been a challenge.”
Vermont is in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic. The state has surpassed 4,000 overall cases after reporting 99 on Friday. Three more people have died, bringing the overall death toll to 67.
Some of Vermont's worst initial outbreaks during the pandemic's spring wave were concentrated in long-term care facilities. Infections at Birchwood Terrace Rehab and Healthcare in Burlington resulted in 21 deaths and more than 90 cases between residents and staffers combined.
The state has refined its safety protocols in the subsequent months and now conducts facility-wide tests in the event of a positive case. It also requires facilities to quarantine and test new arrivals to ensure they are not bringing the virus with them.
"We all know the way COVID spreads through such vulnerable facilities: in an often stealthy manner," Levine said. "That's how this virus takes advantage of us and operates."
In response to the recent outbreaks, the state now plans to ramp up surveillance testing for staff, Levine said, which will hopefully prevent the virus from infiltrating facilities through "unsuspecting" employees who may be infected but have no symptoms.
The state hopes to begin testing all long-term care staff on a weekly basis and is even considering daily testing at some of the more vulnerable facilities in areas where the virus is rampant, Levine said.
But he said the main way to stem further outbreaks is to slow the spread of the virus in the broader community, which is why he urged Vermonters to continue to avoid gatherings "of any sort."