Government, institutions prep for coronavirus

VERMONT — “It’s only a matter of time” before the coronavirus arrives in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott said on Thursday.
When that time comes, state officials said at a press conference that day, they plan to be ready.
State agencies on Thursday rolled out preparatory plans for schools, senior living facilities, state government, and hospitals, in advance of the anticipated arrival of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Representatives from the agencies of Education and Human Services, the Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, and Gov. Scott outlined their strategy at a press conference.
Staff across a variety of agencies are working “to plan for anything that comes our way,” Scott said.
As of Thursday, no Vermonters had tested positive for the coronavirus. The state has tested five people, and is monitoring 170, a number that has “grown substantially” in recent days, according to health commissioner Mark Levine. Neighboring states have all reported cases, as has Quebec.
The state is tabulating its resources in case of an outbreak, said state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso. Vermont currently has 80 isolation rooms in hospitals across the state. If hospitals run out of space in those isolation rooms, they’ll relegate patients to a specific wing or rooms. The government has also stockpiled masks and other materials, and has released half of that to hospitals, according to Kelso.
The state has materials to test 250 people for the disease, though more tests kits are on their way. By next week, Vermont officials will have the capacity to test 50 individuals a day, she added.

Meanwhile, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington on Friday told all Vermont parishes to suspended the Catholic practice of distributing holy communion from a cup — that is, giving transubstantiated wine to churchgoers during Mass. Additionally, he instructed Catholics to stop holding hands with each other during recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and to stop making physical contact — usually shaking hands — during the part of Mass called “Sign of Peace.”
“Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to limit potential exposure to viruses, such as the novel coronavirus, pastors have been asked to regularly communicate to their parishioners that if one is sick, he or she should stay home and not attend Mass,” Bishop Coyne said in a release. “The obligation to attend Mass in such cases is lifted.”
On Wednesday, the federal government approved $4.9 million in funds for testing and mitigation efforts in Vermont. Levine said the total represents a rough estimate of what the department expects virus preparation and treatment to cost.
The federal government has loosened testing guidelines, increasing the number of people who can be tested. Previously, anyone who has traveled to a country with widespread coronavirus and was sick enough to be hospitalized could be tested. Now, anyone who has traveled and has flu symptoms of any kind is eligible.
Meanwhile, the state is buckling down its protocol for different populations.
On Wednesday, the state issued guidance for nursing homes, where residents are most susceptible to the virus. The death rate is 10 times higher for those over 80 than for younger patients, according to a recent study.
The state advised nursing homes to instruct people with flu symptoms to avoid visiting, ensure they had sick leave policies in place for staff, and track residents’ symptoms.
Secretary of Education Dan French said his agency is drafting plans that outline the point at which schools should consider closing in case of an outbreak. He’ll also advise schools how to provide student meals in case of a closure, and any potential impact on school calendar requirements.
The state is also working with the U.S. Border Patrol to limit the flow of those who have visited high-risk countries.  Those who have traveled to high-risk areas and are not American citizens are being turned away at the border, said Scott.
A task force created by Scott convened its first meeting Thursday.
Meanwhile, the state health department is doing its best to track and monitor those who may have been exposed to the disease.
Kelso, the epidemiologist, said she is working with state officials in New Hampshire to track down the roughly 175 people at a gathering who may have come into contact with an individual with coronavirus. Last week, an employee of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who had been tested for coronavirus attended a private event at the music venue Engine Room in White River Junction. The man, a New Hampshire resident, later tested positive for the virus.
Officials said Vermonters have been cooperative in self-isolating. For those who are exposed to the virus, the state recommends that they stay at home for 14 days — skipping work, staying out of the grocery store and pharmacy — though they can probably take a walk in the woods, Levine said.
Levine said he has authority to enforce the recommendations, but has no plans to do so. “People actually understand how bad this could get and they don’t want to be actively affecting others,” he said.
Another casualty of the coronavirus, according to Levine? Handshaking.
“The custom of handshaking is probably going to fade away as a result of this crisis,” he said. “I think for most people now it will be socially acceptable to do other forms of communication.” Maybe, he suggested, elbow-to-elbow.

Vermont Department of Health is urging Vermonters to take these preventive actions to help stop the spread of germs:
•  Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
•  Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
•  Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
•  Stay home when you are sick.
•  Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
•  Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

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