Covid-19 updates, State News

Scott announces plan to send 500,000 free rapid tests to Vermonters

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

The state is partnering with the National Institutes of Health to send 500,000 free Covid-19 rapid antigen tests to Vermonters’ homes in the coming weeks, Gov. Phil Scott announced Thursday, Jan. 6. On Jan. 11, the announced a site would be up on Jan. 12 where families could register to receive two kits (4 tests) per household.

The White House announced in late December that it would begin sending 500 million free rapid tests to Americans who request them sometime in January, although the program has not yet rolled out. The governor’s office said the state’s initiative would be in addition to the federal effort, and would not replace existing rapid testing programs already in place in Vermont’s schools and child care facilities.

“Rapid tests are an important tool, but Americans need to be able to get them easily, quickly and far more affordably. While we wait for more details on President Biden’s rapid testing initiative, we are considering ways to simplify and expand our state’s testing system,” Scott said in a statement.

The QuickVue tests, manufactured by Quidel, will come in packs of two, according to the governor’s office. Vermonters will be able to order them online and need to provide their names and mailing addresses. Additional details about how to order will be released next week.

Other states, including Missouri, New Hampshire and New Jersey have also attempted to deploy large numbers of free Covid-19 tests by shipping them directly to residents who ask for them. Basically, all have run into the same problem: extraordinarily high demand, and far too little supply.

The announcement from the governor’s office sought to manage expectations, and stressed that the initiative should be considered a pilot project. The state is gauging “how well the system works so we can continue to improve testing options and work with President Biden’s team to make future testing programs successful,” the governor said.

“As with every new program, there are going to be unanticipated challenges, the number of kits each household can order will be limited, it could take up to a week for them to be delivered, and we expect that they will go very, very quickly,” Scott added.

Also mirroring a federal initiative, Scott announced last month that the state would use its emergency rulemaking powers to require private health insurers to reimburse the cost of rapid tests purchased at pharmacies. Vermonters can file claims with their insurance company for tests they bought anytime after Dec. 1.

Antigen tests are slightly less accurate than PCR tests, which are still considered the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19, and emerging research suggests the antigen tests may be even less sensitive to the Omicron variant. But experts say the at-home tests are still an enormously powerful public health tool for interrupting transmission, given their convenience and quick turnaround. While lab-processed PCR results can take days to come back, antigen tests deliver results within 15 minutes.

Timothy Lahey, an infectious disease physician and director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center, welcomed the governor’s announcement as a “great development.”

“While Omicron might make the tests a wee bit less sensitive (maybe), they do still work well and are that much more important each day the state breaks records for case counts,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

Still, Lahey said it’s important that the tests be used correctly. If someone is planning to gather unmasked with others, a negative test can provide reassurance they are unlikely to be infectious for the next few hours. But anyone with symptoms who receives a positive result should assume they have a confirmed diagnosis. And close contacts should test five and seven days after their exposure, since tests taken too early can miss infections.

“Dramatically expanding access to rapid tests is a very good idea.” said Elizabeth Winterbauer, a consulting epidemiologist and part-time public health instructor at St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont. But she also stressed that people should test multiple times after exposure — and argued that still more was needed to combat Vermont’s latest Covid surge.

“Increased testing alone is not going to reduce Covid’s explosive growth in the state,” she said. “Right now we must do everything we can to reduce transmission, with layered mitigation measures.”

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