By John Walters/VTDigger
A patient at a hospital in Bennington is in critical condition after being the first person in the state to test positive for the new coronavirus.
The patient, described by hospital officials as an older adult male from the Bennington area, is receiving treatment at Southwestern Vermont Medical. The individual arrived at the emergency department of the hospital late on Thursday, March 5 with a fever and a cough. Test results came back within 48 hours showing that it was a case of COVID-19, according to Dr. Trey Dobson, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
State officials announced the coronavirus development Saturday night. At a press conference in Waterbury Sunday morning, Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine provided information on the case and an update on the state’s response.
“The patient is hospitalized in an airborne infection isolation unit,” Levine said. “That means the patient is on the serious end of the [COVID-19] spectrum. The individual is receiving high-quality, compassionate care.”
Levine could offer no information about the patient’s background, travel history, possible contacts with members of the public or health care providers, or the progress of his illness.
“We are trying to obtain complete comprehensive information,” Levine said. “We are tracing anyone who came into close contact with the individual. We are talking to medical staff to ensure they are cared for. It’s the hard work of protecting public health.”
While the health department is taking the lead on investigating the patient’s history of travel and interactions, Dr. Dobson said it’s believed the patient had traveled out of the country within the past three weeks, but not to the countries with the most known cases of COVID-19. He also said the patient’s public exposure appears to be limited.
“My understanding, I will tell you, is he has had limited contact with individuals,” Dobson said.
In a statement, the hospital said it is now offering drive-up testing for patients who are referred by their primary care doctors for testing. The service, in which patients wait for hospital personnel to come out to meet them in their cars to complete the swab, intends to minimize the exposure of other patients to the virus. Neither the hospital nor the state is charging for the test.
Dobson said any patient who arrives with symptoms of respiratory infection is given a face mask. The hospital is prepped for the new virus with strategies like using eye protection and proper hand-washing. Hospital staff immediately considered the new coronavirus to be a potential diagnosis, along with other options like pneumonia, Dobson said.
“It certainly does raise the anxiety level of the community and the staff, but we continue to refine these processes,” Dobson said.
Levine stressed that the primary symptoms of COVID-19 are somewhat different than those of a common cold or flu. The key signs, he said, are fever and a persistent cough. In more advanced cases, patients may experience shortness of breath. Sinus congestion is not usually a symptom of the disease.
The Bennington case is “presumptive” pending confirmation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which should come within 48 hours.
“We fully expected COVID-19 cases in Vermont,” Scott said Sunday. “The news is concerning, but put it in context. We can do much to avoid the spread. The very best thing for each of us to do is to follow the guidance we’ve been giving.”
That includes, Scott said, washing your hands with soap and water, avoiding contact with people who are sick, staying home if you become ill, and sneezing or coughing into your elbow or sleeve.
Levine said that people who have traveled to the five countries with the highest exposure risk should go straight home from the airport, “self-isolate for 14 days,” and report to the state health department. China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan have had high occurrences of the virus.
According to the CDC, the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 is highest among the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions, including heart, lung, and kidney disease, cancer, diabetes and any immunosuppressive illness.
“With our older populations being most vulnerable to this virus, we’ve specifically strengthened protections for them,” Scott said. “We’re putting in place a screening process that will keep those at risk for carrying COVID-19 or any cold or flu from entering any facilities that care for older Vermonters.”
A total of 224 Vermonters are being monitored; “that number will obviously increase,” Levine noted.
New Hampshire officials announced two new presumptive cases, including one linked to an interaction at a West Lebanon church over the weekend, the Valley News reported.
Levine said that Vermont is not suffering a shortage of test kits. “It’s increasing all the time,” he said. “Currently we’re fine. We’re running tests every day of the week.” Scott added that no Vermonter should have to pay out of pocket for coronavirus testing.
When asked if the state was taking any action to close public gatherings such as sporting events or concerts, Scott said no. “It’s premature at this time, but this changes from day to day,” Scott said. “We’re ready to take action when needed.”
Schools are already taking action. Middlebury College announced to students and staff it is closing early for spring break. The campus will shut down on Friday, March 13 for two weeks. Classes will resume—remotely—on Monday, March 30.
Levine expressed confidence that employers will be generous in allowing sick workers to stay home. “I think we’re in a time in our society now where employers look at that very differently than they did before,” he said. “Employers do not want to be viewed as the place that was the vector for numerous people getting sick.”
Scott turned away a question about whether this situation is an argument for a statewide paid family and medical leave program.
“I don’t think it’s the time for that argument,” Scott said. “But I would add that the bill that was passed and that I vetoed didn’t include medical. And it wouldn’t have taken effect for a year or two. So it wouldn’t have had an effect on this situation right now.”
Levine said the health department’s website is being updated daily with the latest information. Scott promised to continue informing Vermonters by all possible means as the situation continues to develop.