On December 9, 2020

Gathering outbreaks recede while nursing home cases rise, state data shows

By Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Covid-19 cases attributed to social events receded after the state’s ban on multi-household gatherings went intoeffect Nov. 13. Now outbreaks in facilities like nursing homes have become the primary driver of the ongoing surge, according to a new contact tracing data analysis released Friday, Dec. 4, by the Vermont Dept. of Health.

Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine had previously cited the statistic that 71% of cases attributed to outbreaks were the result of social gatherings.

The health department’s new analysis illustrates the rise in cases attributed to social events in the weeks leading up to the gathering ban. From the start of the pandemic until Dec. 2, the health department reported that 275 cases were connected to outbreaks due to social gatherings. Most of those cases are concentrated in late October and early November, with the highest totals reported during the weeks of Oct. 18-24 and Nov. 1-7.

At a press conference on Nov. 17, Levine cited Halloween parties, dinner parties and baby showers as examples of private events where Covid was spreading.

The gathering ban appears to have had an immediate effect. Cases linked to gatherings dropped sharply, from dozens of cases per week before the ban to fewer than 10 the week of Nov. 15-21. (The health department’s analysis does not provide exact weekly numbers for each category.)

While the case numbers bolster the rationale behind the gathering ban, the data also backs up Scott’s claim that the virus is more likely to spread at a social event than in a workplace or school. The 275 gathering cases stem from 11 events, with the majority of those cases linked to nine outbreaks from October and November. Over the same period, 10 school outbreaks and 23 workplace outbreaks sparked far fewer cases.

However, only two social gatherings caused outbreaks in October, and one appears to account for a large proportion of those cases. The department’s criteria includes recreational sports in the social gathering category, and one event — identified only as “social gathering/event B” — matches previous health department reports of the outbreak linked to an ice rink in Montpelier.

The department has reported separately that 124 cases are linked to that event, while a chart in Friday’s analysis links 110 cases. By those estimates, 40%-45% of the cumulative cases attributed to social gathering

outbreaks would stem from the ice rink outbreak.

Congregate care outbreaks take over

As quickly as cases linked to gatherings receded, cases linked to outbreaks in congregate care settings, like nursing homes and rehab facilities, have spiked. Beginning the week of Nov. 8-14, the department reported dozens of cases linked to these outbreaks, with the total increasing every week since.

407 total cases have been linked to congregate care outbreaks since the start of the pandemic as of Dec. 2. Unlike with social gatherings, many cases in this category were reported in March and April. But the tallies have resurged, with nine of these outbreaks reported in October and November.  The number of these cases in recent weeks has now surpassed the total from March through May.

Covid-19 cases in long-term care facilities

As of Friday, Dec. 4, the Dept. of Health was tracking outbreaks at eight Vermont long-term care facilities. Two homes, Birchwood Terrace Health & Rehab and Burlington Health & Rehab, had outbreaks earlier in the pandemic.

On Friday, the state reported 234 cumulative cases from ongoing outbreaks at eight long-term care facilities. The hardest hit is the Elderwood at Burlington nursing home, which logged 78 cases and three deaths as of Thursday afternoon, Dec. 3.

Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, announced details of a plan to ramp up surveillance testing for long-term care facilities.

All staff at assisted living and residential care facilities will get PCR tests twice a week, he said, and antigen tests will be available for additional testing of symptomatic residents or staff. Staff at all skilled nursing facilities will be tested daily using antigen tests and once per week using PCR tests, again with antigen tests available.

Covid close contacts may receive texts

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, announced Dec. 8, the Health Dept. this week will launch a new text notification system for some close contacts.

“This will help us get information out as quickly as possible, so these close contacts can quarantine right away and access other important information on our website,” Dr. Levine said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Please know that the texts do not replace our expert contact tracing work – everyone identified as a close contact will still get a phone call from a contact tracer.”

Phone numbers will be provided by the person who has Covid-19. Determination of who get these texts will be made by the contact tracing team based on the situation, Dr. Levine said, “Not everyone will get a text, but if you do, please know it is a legitimate and important message from the Vermont Department of Health.”

Texts will be from the number 89361 and will include two short messages notifying the person that: they may be a close contact, to expect a call from a contact tracer, to quarantine right away, and to visit healthvermont.gov/closecontact.

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