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Demand for COVID tests booms

PEOPLE LINED UP more than 100 deep, left, to pick up COVID antigen tests given away by the state at 55 Middle Road in Middlebury last Thursday at 8 a.m., but the supply of around 1,000 tests ran out in an hour. The state is still providing more thorough PCR tests at the Middlebury Recreation Center; at right Missy Wisnowski helps a Vermonter take the drive-through test last week. Independent photos/Megan James and John S. McCright

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermonters are gearing up as the omicron variant of COVID-19 begins to wash over Vermont.

People quickly snapped up all of the rapid COVID tests being given away at 10 state Department of Health sites — including one in Middlebury. Local pharmacies were also unsure when their depleted stocks of rapid antigen tests would be refilled.

Middlebury College said it would delay the start of the winter term and require more testing of students (see story on this page).

As schools for younger students prepare to reopen after the holiday break, local educators are hoping a new testing policy will help keep more unvaccinated kids in school when one of their classmates tests positive for the disease.

The “Test to Stay’ program, or TTS, has been implemented by a number of school districts around the country over the past month or so, but was only officially approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Dec. 17. It aims to reduce the number of children who must quarantine at home if they’re identified as close contacts.

The Mount Abraham Unified School District began using the program on Dec. 20.

Prior to that, when a student tested positive and was determined to have been contagious while in school, “we (were) having to quarantine an entire classroom for sometimes more than a week,” explained MAUSD COVID-19 coordinator Justin Bouvier in a Dec. 13 memo to families. Now, TTS will “allow students to remain in school and participate in on-campus, school-sponsored activities, while receiving daily tests for up to 7 days.”

According to Dec. 18 data from the Vermont Department of Health, 90% of Addison County children ages 12-17 have had at least one vaccine dose and 84% are fully vaccinated.

Vaccines for kids ages 5-11 have only been available for less than two months, so that age group is still catching up. In Addison County, 59% had had at least one vaccine dose by De. 18, and 38% were fully vaccinated. Addison County Home Health and Hospice was among the organizations that helped speed up administration of shots at many local schools.

Elementary schools are likely to see the biggest benefits from TTS, which could even reduce or prevent outbreaks such as the one experienced by Bristol Elementary School after Thanksgiving.

BES reported 11 cases in the two-week period ending Dec. 13, according to VDH data, and a number of students were quarantined as a result. Interim BES Principal David Wells did not respond to the Independent’s request for more information about the outbreak. Neshobe Elementary in Brandon also reported a surge in cases among students and staff just before the holiday break (See story on this page).

‘A GAMECHANGER’

In the Addison Central School District, TTS has been a “gamechanger,” said district COVID-19 coordinator Kelly Landwehr.

“Since beginning the Test to Stay program a few weeks ago (in November), we have had 148 students participate in our elementary schools as well as MUMS (Middlebury Union Middle School) and MUHS (Middlebury Union High School),” Landwehr told the Independent on Dec. 16. “These are 148 students who were able to stay at school versus going home and missing 7-10 days of school.”

The Addison Northwest School District and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union are also employing the program.

Participation in TTS  is optional, and those who wish to register must complete consent forms.

HOW TEST TO STAY WORKS

Bouvier explained how TTS will work in the MAUSD:

  • Only unvaccinated students ages 5 and up may participate.
  • Participants identified as close contacts will be given a rapid antigen test every morning upon arrival at school. They may remain at school that day if their test result is negative, but they will not be allowed to hang out with other kids until they receive a negative result.
  • Students in the program may ride the bus — data show that COVID is rarely transmitted on buses — but if they receive a positive antigen test at school, a caregiver will need to come and get them.
  • With the exception of school and on-campus school-sponsored activities, students are expected to remain in quarantine during their TTS period.
  • Students not participating in TTS who are exposed to COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days or quarantine for seven days and receive a negative PCR test result at day 7 before returning to school.

Those protocols could get updated after schools reopen in January, however.

On Monday the CDC issued new quarantine guidance: Both asymptomatic individuals who test positive and unvaccinated individuals identified as close contacts may reduce their quarantine time from 10 days to five if they wear masks in public on days 6-10.

The following day, after Gov. Phil Scott announced Vermont will distribute 80,000 COVID-19 home test kits so parents can test their children before they return to school in January, Secretary of Education Daniel French indicated the state aims to distribute more such kits to families participating in TTS, so children exposed to COVID-19 can be tested before they come to school.

On Wednesday Scott said that parents and caregivers of Vermont’s K-12 children will be able to pick up one free rapid antigen test kit per student this week at sites around Vermont. The state is encouraging parents to use these kits to test kids before they return to school next week, but a test is not a requirement for returning to school.

Families with children in kindergarten through grade 12 will be able to pick up one kit per child at one of 51 Agency of Transportation sites around the state on Thursday, Dec.  30, or Friday, Dec. 31. In Addison County the pickup sites are in Middlebury at 341 Creek Road, and New Haven at the VTrans lot at 490 Main St.

The pick-up sites will be open both days from 7-10 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.

Register for the kids online at healthvermont.gov/student-testing.

Name and school of the students will be required to pick up the tests. The students do not need to be present at pickup.

More than 87,000 of the 2-pack rapid antigen test kits will be distributed, to allow students to test twice before school starts following winter break. Students should take these tests at least 24 hours apart, starting two days before school begins.

FREE TAKE-HOME TESTS

Last week the Department of Health gave away free COVID antigen tests at sites around Vermont, and the tests went fast. The COVID test giveaway at 55 Middle Road in Middlebury last Thursday ran out of kits about an hour into the event. At press time it was unclear if a second Middlebury popup, originally scheduled for Dec. 30, would take place. It was removed from the Vermont Department of Health’s list of upcoming giveaway popups, and Department of Health spokesman Ben Truman told the Independent that “the sites are removed when all kits have been distributed.”

Nevertheless, a person at Middlebury Regional Emergency Medical Services, which operated the Middlebury giveaway last week, said the organization had test kits on hand Wednesday.

According to Truman, a total of 34,560 kits (each containing two tests) were distributed at similar pop-up sites statewide over two weeks.

“I don’t have an exact number for the Middlebury site, but the sites generally received between 850-1,200 kits for each day,” he wrote in an email.

“The supply we have from the federal government is still limited,” he added. “So while we are working to get them into the hands of Vermonters, and expect to continue to receive more in the coming days and weeks, there will, unfortunately, not be enough for everyone who wants one right away. The demand will mean there will be lines and wait times at the sites, and that they will likely run out quickly.”

CHRISTMAS SPIKE?

Last week state health officials warned Vermonters to prepare for a jump in COVID-19 cases after the holidays, when more people would likely gather in groups.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 in Addison County since the day before, and 244 positive tests during the preceding two weeks. That is almost 1% of all 2,507 cases reported in the county over the past 92 weeks.

Also on Wednesday, an alarming 940 new COVID-19 cases statewide were reported in just one day. Vermont has recorded 63,076 positive coronavirus tests since the pandemic began almost two years ago.

Megan James contributed to this story.

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