Vermont races to expand COVID-19 testing

Published: Mar. 18, 2020 at 4:25 PM EDT
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Vermont health officials Wednesday said the state doesn't yet have the resources for widespread testing for coronavirus. As the state races to expand capacity, including drive-thru testing, serious questions remain about how widespread the virus really is.

"I have the symptoms, but I was told I'm not eligible for testing yet because I have not come into contact with anyone who has had coronavirus and I have not traveled outside of the state," said one many we spoke to who asked not to be identified because he is worried about retaliation.

He told us he has symptoms and couldn't get a referral for a test. Without it, he's in quarantine and not sure if it would be safe to see his parents or get groceries. "Stuck -- working from home. My wife is stuck, unable to work at all," he said.

So far, all of Vermont's testing has been done by the state's lab in Colchester. They're looking at adding national commercial labs to the mix. Those would have a slower turnaround time and would handle lower-priority tests.

"It could overwhelm the system if everyone felt that their test was the most important and they needed to have it done immediately, because we are certainly not in a situation where we can do that today," said Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on Wednesday.

He also admitted they can't do widespread surveillance testing to figure out how prevalent coronavirus is in Vermont, so there's no way to know for sure how many people here have it. "We still need to have rational and reasonable expectations of who should be tested, who should not be tested," he said.

Part of the effort to ramp up testing includes a pop-up testing site run by the UVM Medical Center that opened Monday at the Champlain Valley Expo.

Patients never have to leave their cars. They drive up, get asked some questions from a safe distance, get a mouth and nose swab, and drive home. So far 72 people have come to get their mouth and nose swabbed and then were sent home.

Officials aren't sure how long this site will be open and are taking it day-by-day. Michaela McDonough, a UVM nurse, says it's a safe way to screen.

"It helps with efficiency, so it keeps people out of waiting rooms and urgent care and our emergency department. And it's a way to get people tested from a safe distance," McDonough said.

Officials stress that patients still need to have a doctor's referral to come use the drive-thru. So far, only one person has come without a referral and they were turned away.

UVM officials are also asking people with mild symptoms to stay home, self-care and leave the testing for more high-risk seniors, people with chronic conditions or who are immune-compromised, and health care workers who may have been exposed to the virus.

Other drive-up sites coming online include Porter Hospital in Middlebury. The Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington also began offering the service last week.