State rejects CDC testing protocols

KRISTOPHER RADDER - BRATTLEBORO REFORMER\nSteve Morlock, of Rescue Inc., puts a COVID-19 testing swab up the nasal passage of Sharon Branand, of West Chesterfield, N.H., during a pop-up COVID-19 testing clinic at the Brattleboro Union High School's parking lot, in Brattleboro, Vt., on Thursday, May 14, 2020. The clinics are part of the state's efforts to ramp up testing and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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MONTPELIER — Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Vermont would continue testing people who have been exposed to the coronavirus, even if they show no symptoms.

Levine, during Gov. Phil Scott's twice weekly news conference on the coronavirus pandemic, said Vermont would not be following the recent advice from the

Centers for Disease Control, who this week advised states they didn't need to test people who have had close contact with people with the virus, as long as they were asymptomatic.

"Vermont's recommendations are not changing," he told reporters. "Underpinning its success is testing," he said.

But Levine said he doesn't agree with the CDC guidance, and neither does many of his

counterparts in other states.

When the CDC came out with its new testing guidance this week, it was viewed by many as having a political message as well, as President Trump has repeatedly blamed the high number of cases in the U.S. on the level of testing.

Scott said Vermont made its own path in the past six months in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, and has rejected federal guidance before in some cases. He said he isn't going to shift

strategies now — particularly since Vermont is leading the country in its response, with low incidence of the disease.

"There's no denying our success," he said.

Scott noted that Friday marked the ninth anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated many areas of the state, flooding roads and homes, and cutting off many parts of the state.

Like Irene, Scott said, the pandemic has "brought out the best" in Vermonters.

While Vermont still has about 40,000 people on unemployment, and thousands of businesses "can't make ends meet," he said the low incidence of the disease is good news for the state's future.

Scott announced at the start of the press conference that Vermont continues to lead the country in many positive categories concerning the virus — with the lowest positivity rate and lowest per capita cases in the country.

As of Friday, Vermont had 1,589 cases, having seen 58 of its residents die from the virus. The state has tested 126,755. Three Vermonters are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health.

Scott and other members of his administration on Friday said the number of college students testing positive for the virus is lower than expected.

Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said Vermont had only 50 new cases in the week ending Thursday, compared to 60 the week before. The week before that, it was 39.

Those cases were revealed during 16,000 new tests, he said, most of those associated with the testing of returning college students.

While Pieciak said Windham and Bennington counties had a high number of new cases, he said the number of cases across the state remained relatively low.

According to the Department of Health's website, Chittenden County had 41 new cases in the past 14 days, Windham County was second with 16 new cases in the past 14 days, and Bennington fourth, with nine new cases in the past two weeks.

Windham County had a total of 120 cases since statistics started being kept, with Brattleboro leading the way with 38 cases. The town of Bennington had 31.

The state Health Department is currently investigating an "outbreak" of six or fewer cases in the Rutland-Killington area. He said the cases stemmed from a single gathering, although he declined to give any specific information to reporters, citing privacy laws.

Scott continued to say that restrictions on the hard-hit tourism and lodging industry would be loosened, depending on the results from the return of college students and the return of K-12 students.

More than 65 percent of all K-12 students will be going to school "remotely" at least three days a week, Pieciak said.

Pieciak, in a comparison between Northern Vermont University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, showed that Vermont college students have a tiny fraction of infected cases compared to the North Carolina school, which had to send students home because of an overwhelming number of cases.

He said the two campuses of Northern Vermont have already welcomed students back in full, and tests revealed not a single case.

So far, despite widespread and repeated testing, there have only been 19 confirmed cases out of 15,134 college students already back in Vermont.

He said that 8,679 tested negative, while there were 6,436 still pending.

There are more than 6,000 out-of-state University of Vermont students still expected to arrive, he said.

Michael Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Service, said families that currently receive benefits under the 3Squares program would be seeing an increase in their grant. Families do not have to apply for the food funding, he said, it would automatically show up in their checks or deposits.

And he said the agency is working hard to get the new "hub" day care centers up and staffed by the beginning of school, on Sept. 8. Smith said staffing is an issue.

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