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BENNINGTON — Local legislators, agencies and business owners are taking precautions in light of the state's first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The Vermont Department of Health announced the state's first case of COVID-19 late Saturday night. It involves an adult patient being treated in an isolation unit at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.

According to a statement released by the hospital Sunday afternoon, the individual came to the emergency department on Thursday with fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The person was admitted, immediately placed in isolation in a negative-pressure room, and tested for COVID-19. Early testing results from the Department of Health came back as presumptive positive. The individual was confirmed to be stable and hospitalized in an airborne infection isolation room, according to the release.

Health officials said they are investigating the person's travel history and conducting contact tracing for anyone who has been in close contact with the person. Those individuals will be assessed for their exposure risk and provided with guidance for testing, their health, and recommendations for self-isolation or other restrictions.

State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, said she was briefed on the coronavirus with most of the other Bennington County legislators at 10:30 on Monday morning.

"They certainly are commending the state medical facilities for the good job that they're doing, and following protocol, and they were very complimentary for [Southwestern] Vermont Medical Center with the case that's here," she said.

Officials are also trying to see if there is any possible connection between a case of the coronavirus in Massachusetts that is "somewhat close" to the area and the case in Bennington, she said. The Bennington case was an individual who is from eastern Bennington County, she said.

"But they could not more reiterate for people to take the precautions that they need to while the country and our state and our communities are dealing with this issue," she added of the call, which was with Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, and Mark Levine, Vermont commissioner of health.

Morrissey said citizens should be taking the virus seriously.

"Again, you don't want folks panicking, but you want everyone to do the protocols," she said. "We're all in this together to try to help prevent this virus going forward."

Levine has repeatedly urged residents to practice non-pharmaceutical interventions, as there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.

That includes things like staying home if you're sick, avoiding people who are sick, and following proper respiratory etiquette — like coughing into sleeves and focusing "more than ever" on hand-washing, Levine said at a press conference last week.

Organizations, schools react

Linda Wichlac, executive director of Bennington Project Independence, said her organization has been following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Vermont Health Department, and following their usual precautions.

"Obviously, we're ramping it up," she said.

Those precautions include sanitizing the building daily and wiping down frequently touched surfaces.

"The cold and flu season, we do this generally anyway," she said. "This just brings more awareness to the process."

BPI serves a wide range of people, from independent seniors to individuals with greater physical needs to people with Alzheimer's Disease or brain injuries.

BPI also just had a conversation with members, to give them up-to-date information on the virus, as there's been a lot of misinformation, Wichlac said.

Going forward, Wichlac said they'll be relying on information from local healthcare professionals regarding the threat risk, and will be monitoring their members for signs of illness, just as they normally would.

Closing the center is also on the table, should that be necessary.

"We just have to determine what the risk is as best we can with the information that we have," Wichlac said. "It's a challenging situation, because we do have individuals that rely on our services."

Some local senior programs and facilities made changes to their regular activities on Monday.

Meals on Wheels of Bennington County, which prepares a meal for up to 300 people a day, reduced its home deliveries from five times to once a week. The delivery would provide each client between five and seven meals a week, depending on what the person normally receives. 

The nonprofit also is administering a questionnaire to diners at its meal sites — Bennington, Arlington and Manchester — to screen for people who might have the coronavirus.

The program serves people older than 60, as well as those living with disabilities, which include the populations considered vulnerable to the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Items on the diner's questionnaire include whether a person has visited a hospital or walk-in clinic in the past two weeks, has symptoms like a fever and trouble breathing, as well as traveled to China, Italy, South Korea, Iran or Japan, countries that have seen the most coronavirus cases worldwide.

"We had to implement some procedures for the prevention of any type of spreading of the virus," said Ilsa Svoboda, executive director of the Meals on Wheels program. The new policies, she said, were implemented upon the advice of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging and the state Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

At the Senior Citizen's Service Center in Bennington on Monday, Svoboda said two Meals on Wheels diners were asked to take two weeks' worth of lunches home when they admitted having visited the hospital that morning. That meal site alone serves 20-80 diners a day.

"I feel terrible, absolutely terrible that we have to turn anybody away," Svoboda said, explaining that taking meals on site are a way for local seniors to socialize.

Also on Monday, the senior living facility Brookdale Fillmore Pond canceled residents' weekly outings such as trips to the grocery store, library and restaurants.

"We'll pick up whatever residents need," executive director Lynne Stratton said, while emphasizing that clients will still be taken to their medical appointments as scheduled.

The facility, located on Village Lane, has around 100 residents. Last week, as concerns over the coronavirus grew in Vermont, Stratton said Fillmore Pond already asked "non-essential" visitors to stay away.

In a statement provided Monday afternoon, Katie West, public information coordinator for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said custodial staff are cleaning the hard surfaces in the SVSU's schools, including those in rest rooms, nurse's offices, cafeterias, classroom desks, and door handles.

"As the course of this virus progresses, we do expect, and are prepared for, more cases of the COVID-19 to appear in Vermont," she said. "In preparation, we are in daily communication with the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Agency of Education."

Economic impact

"Where do I begin?" said Bob Baker, owner of the Bennington travel agency Vacations by Beth, when asked about the coronavirus. "Has it affected the agency? One hundred and fifty percent."

Now, he said, just about every call his agency fields is about the coronavirus, as customers cancel their trips left and right.

"We are working seven days a week just to file claims on behalf of clients who do have [travel] insurance," he said.

And the effect on the agency itself is "huge," he said. They do most of their business between November and April.

And when someone cancels a trip — even if they have travel insurance — Baker's agency's commission is not protected.

Usually, they stockpile their winter commissions to make it through the slower months.

"That's going to be quite difficult," Baker said. "I've been here 27 years, and it's been the hardest hit I've seen."

People are cancelling all types of trips, but the majority are cruises, in response to cruise ships being quarantined over the coronavirus.

Baker said he's advising people on what to do based on the specifics of their trip, and their personal details.

"I qualify their situation — how old are you? Where are you going? How long are you going? How are you getting there?" he said.

Right now, he's against traveling in Asia, most of Europe and the South Pacific, but he's gotten no travel industry warnings about travel in the Caribbean.

"I expect this virus to get even bigger, to be honest with you," he said. "And the effects — who knows what the effects are going to be?"

Mack Molding has so far not had to make significant changes to its production as a result of the virus' impact on Chinese manufacturing plants, the company's president, Jeff Somple, said Monday.

"Supply chain disruptions are part of the normal course of business in the world of manufacturing," Somple said in an emailed statement. "Whether it's Coronavirus in China, tariffs or natural disasters, we plan and monitor accordingly, and as of yet we have not experienced any shortages that have caused us to make significant production changes. Like all employers we continue to monitor the latest guidance from the CDC and regional health officials in an effort to protect our employees and best serve our customers."

SVMC procedures

For patients who have a referral for COVID-19 testing from their primary care provider, SVMC offers testing off-site, in part to protect hospital patients and staff from possible exposure, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trey Dobson said Sunday morning.

That service includes drive-up testing, according to the release, which allows people to remain in their cars.

Following Vermont Department of Health protocol, outpatients have been instructed to contact their healthcare providers if they have traveled internationally and have symptoms, the hospital said, adding, "Their provider will contact SVMC's nurse designee in the emergency department, who will coordinate a time for the patient to drive to SVMC to be tested."

The Bennington hospital, campuses and departments are open and safe for patients, according to the release.

The public is asked to follow SVMC's flu season visitors' policy, which has been posted at the entrances since shortly after flu season began. It indicates that children not visit patients in the hospital at this time, that patients' visitors not have respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms (fever, sore throat, cough, vomiting, or diarrhea), and that no more than two people visit a patient at a time. These precautions will help the hospital reduce risk to those most vulnerable to the flu and other infections.

More information can be found on the health system's website, svhealthcare.org; the website of the Vermont Department of Health, healthvermont.gov, and on the CDC website, CDC.gov.

Vermont has completed monitoring of 39 residents, and is monitoring 223 people, according to an update from the Vermont Department of Health on Monday afternoon.

Department of Health updates on the response to the coronavirus can be found at https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/2019-novel-coronavirus.

Virus test sample swabs are sent to the Vermont lab for results, which typically arrive to the primary care provider within 72 hours. The state is not charging for the test, officials said, and the patient will not incur emergency department charges.

The Department of Health recommends that all travelers who have returned from China, Italy, South Korea, Iran or Japan in the last 14 days should call the department at 802-863-7240 to discuss monitoring. Anyone who develops symptoms of shortness of breath, cough or fever is asked to contact their health care provider right away.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.

Tiffany Tan contributed to this story. She can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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