Suspected COVID-19 outbreak hits Manchester area
“We really don’t know anything yet. Now that a red flag has been raised, everyone has to take a deep breath and wait for more information.”
— Londonderry Town Clerk Kelly Pajala
State Health Department officials said late on Wednesday that 58 people have tested positive for COVID-19 through antigen testing performed at a health center in Manchester. Antigen tests are a newer type of test that provide results much more quickly than PCR tests (the most common type of test used to diagnose COVID-19 infection).
Officials were quick to temper the news, saying that “while they are a useful tool for screening patients, antigen tests may have a higher chance of missing an active infection and need to be confirmed.”
The department’s epidemiology team is treating these positive tests as “presumptive positives.” This means we take all the same actions as a confirmed positive case, including reaching out to the person to provide guidance on staying home (self-isolating). They are also conducting contact tracing, to provide those people guidance to quarantine and to recommend testing as appropriate.
Some 650 Manchester-area residents swarmed two COVID-19 pop-up test sites Wednesday as the region awaits state verification of a suspected coronavirus outbreak.
“We anticipate that confirmed positive cases will increase substantially over the next several days,” said Trey Dobson, chief medical officer of Bennington’s Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, which operates an clinic in Manchester.
The hospital set up dozens of state-approved test kits outside the nearby Riley Rink, only to face a nearly half-mile-long line of 100 vehicles — some holding entire families — upon the site’s 9 a.m. opening on Wednesday morning.
“It’s a record for us,” hospital spokesperson Ray Smith said. “Usually we test around 400 in a week’s time. Here we’re approaching 400 in a single day.”
The Manchester site and a Vermont Health Department location that drew 250 people to Londonderry’s Flood Brook School came after the state acknowledged about 60 of what it considers to be “presumptive positive” diagnoses in the last several days.
“The cases are regional in nature and not isolated to one community,” the town of Manchester added in a Facebook post. “More than half of the cases reported are from mountain communities along Route 11 and Route 30.”
Manchester Medical Center, a private urgent care practice whose doctors include town health officer Thomas Sterling, started to see a potential problem over the weekend. By Tuesday it reported about 40 positive antigen rapid-detection test results. On Wednesday it added another 21.
“This outbreak is a serious situation that requires prompt action,” Dobson said at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
The state, however, doesn’t include antigen rapid-detection tests in its official counts but instead requires the more time-consuming polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests administered Wednesday at the two pop-up sites.
The State Department of Health said that as of 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, more than 306 specimens were collected at a pop-up site in Londonderry.
“We are working hard to ensure the most accurate test is available for patients,” Dobson said. “We need all of the information we can get and everyone’s cooperation to limit the impact.”
Although many area businesses are open this week, several others — from the Northshire Bookstore to the Winhall Market adjacent to the access road for the Stratton Mountain Resort — have returned to curbside service only.
In Londonderry, town clerk and state Rep. Kelly Pajala usually can cast light on local matters large and small. But after receiving news that a municipal office visitor recently tested positive for COVID-19, she’s as in the dark about the suspected outbreak as everyone else.
“We really don’t know anything yet,” Pajala said after closing her quarters as a precautionary measure. “Now that a red flag has been raised, everyone has to take a deep breath and wait for more information.”
Although social media speculation is rampant, the state isn’t expected to report anything official until Friday at the earliest as it awaits test results and its next COVID-19 press conference.
“I really can’t give you what you’re asking for until I have these cases in front of me and can be very definitive about who’s involved and where they live,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine told reporters Tuesday at Gov. Phil Scott’s most recent media briefing.
The Manchester test site at Riley Rink will remain open for free drive-up visits from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily until volume subsides, at which time it will move to the nearby SVMC Northshire Campus.
Doctors are asking anyone who believes they’ve been exposed to the virus to stay home and monitor their health for 14 days, and everyone else to wear a mask in public, stay at least 6 feet apart, wash and sanitize their hands often and limit travel.
“Easing up on these very important aspects of controlling the virus puts everyone at risk,” Dobson said. “The most important way to care for our communities right now is by behaving in ways that reduce the spread.”
TESTING IN MIDDLEBURY
In Middlebury, Porter Hospital is not anticipating a flood of requests for COVID-19 tests, according to Ron Hallman, vice president for communications and engagement.
“At this time, Porter (and I believe all Vermont hospitals) are only testing symptomatic individuals who are referred to our testing center by a (health care) provider (not asymptomatic people who are concerned about maybe having COVID or who have traveled out of state, etc.),” he said. “Our demand for testing is driven exclusively by people who have symptoms.”
He was not aware of any higher demand on Thursday morning.
Generally speaking, Vermont is trying to test as many people as it can for COVID-19 in order to find out who has it and stop them from infecting others.
The Department of Health has been running a series of free pop-up testing sites around the state. In Addison County the DOH office in Middlebury — 156 South Village Green — hosts tests every Friday. Capacity is limited, however, and you need to sign up beforehand — they do not accept walk-ins if all appointments are already taken..
To claim a spot head online to tinyurl.com/COVID-test-VT and scroll down to “Health Department Pop-Up Testing Locations” and follow the prompts.
Testing involves a technician putting a cotton swab deep into your nostril and turning it 10 times to collect a sample, which is sent away for testing. Results come back in about two days.
Editor’s note: The Addison Independent’s John S. McCright contributed to this story.
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