On March 18, 2020

COVID-19: Be ready for big steps

By Angelo Lynn

On Friday, March 13, Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has now established several beachheads in this country — most notably, a new epicenter is spreading in New Rochelle, New York, New York City and neighboring states, and into the Boston area.

It is already in Vermont and will ramp up sooner than most of us expect.

What all Vermonters need to understand is that social distancing is critical to preventing a rush of critically ill patients on our health care system. What we have seen in other countries with health care systems better equipped than our own, is that when those systems are overwhelmed, the death rate rises dramatically.

It’s why Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency with only five known cases of the disease in Vermont at that time. He knows that number will double and double again and again in the near future. Vermont’s numbers had jumped to 12 confirmed coronavirus cases by Monday, March 16, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference.

It’s why colleges made decisions earlier last week to temporarily suspend classes on campus, and practice remote learning until further notice. And it’s why the governor, on Sunday afternoon, notified the state that preK-12 schools were to close at the end of the school day on Tuesday. That move was sorely needed. The state’s focus has to be to limit the spread of the virus and you can’t do that with school children carrying the virus (even if they show no symptoms) throughout the community.

The next big step the state needs to take is more aggressive testing.

Denver recently implemented drive-through testing and is providing tests to those who request it. The nations that have successfully contained the virus have made it widely available.

Vermont’s testing protocols are too restrictive. Vermont needs to press harder to get more tests, set up remote testing as quickly as possible and allow those who have symptoms to be tested earlier and with less hassle.

Access to more tests is not Vermont’s fault; reportedly, the state has not had adequate access to tests because of the Trump administration’s ignorance and incompetence. After weeks of delay and denial, Trump belatedly freed up billions of dollars just last Thursday and gave permission for states and hospitals to conduct testing more freely, something that should have happened six to eight weeks ago.

Sobering numbers

Here are a few numbers that illustrate the dire concern:

• Rutland Regional Medical Center, the biggest community hospital in Vermont and the second largest hospital in the state, serves primarily the Rutland County population of about 59,000. RRMC has 144 beds. Many of those, however, are occupied by the everyday flow of medical patients. Only a few are available for critical care. And even if we create more beds, say adding cots to rooms and hallways, we don’t have a ready supply of extra medical care employees to fill that high demand.

• Medical officials estimate this coronavirus (unless we impose strict social distancing) will likely infect 40% to 70% of the population. About 20% of the cases will be more severe, and a good percentage of those cases may need hospitalization.

To understand that impact, let’s say 50% of Rutland County residents become infected. That’s 29,500 people. Of those, 20% will have cases more severe than mild; that’s 5,900. If just 10% of those cases need to be hospitalized, that’s 590 Rutland County residents that could need a bed at  RRMC,  a hospital with 144 total beds. And each of them would need to be there for perhaps 14 days. In the worst cases, patients need ventilators and those are in also short supply.

If infections were spread out over a few months, RRMC could likely handle it; but because this virus spreads with exponential speed over a few weeks, health care systems get overwhelmed.

It’s why this virus has proven to be fatal at a rate 10-30 times higher than the normal flu.

It’s why working remotely must be implemented broadly.

It’s why Vermont, as of Monday, limited groups to 50 (as Colorado did), not the 250 declared by Gov. Scott on Friday.

If we don’t take such strict measures, we’ll be where Italy, France and Spain are today; virtual lockdowns of all social and business activity.

Vermont’s best defense is to be informed, practice good hygiene and social distancing, and self-quarantine if needed.

Remember, too, that ignorance and disease go together — as they have throughout the ages.

If we’re smart and act quickly, we can get ahead of this pandemic, but we all have to work together. One naysayer, one believer of the rhetoric that it’s a hoax, can risk the health of the entire community.

Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister paper to the Mountain Times.

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