What Vermonters should know about testing for COVID-19

Coronavirus

NUTLEY, NJ – FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on February 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. The facility develops novel therapies for some of the worlds most difficult diseases. At least 53 countries have reported cases of infection. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

As Vermont officials continue to investigate the state’s single case of COVID-19 in Bennington, the health department’s laboratory in Colchester has tested almost three dozen people who were determined not to have been infected by the coronavirus.

The number of people tested will rise, and could eventually include people who interacted with the Bennington patient, who is being treated in an airborne infection isolation room at Southwest Vermont Medical Center.

So far, testing by public agencies like the Vermont Department of Health has been limited to people who meet certain criteria:

  • Hospitalized individuals with symptoms consistent with COVID-19;
  • Symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and a travel history to an affected area;
  • Symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and had close contact with another person who tested positive;
  • When a health care provider believes someone’s symptoms could be due to COVID-19.

If you feel ill, consult your health care provider, who will test first for the seasonal flu and other common infections. If it turns out your physician recommends that you be tested for COVID-19, chances are you won’t have to pay.

The state recently issued an emergency bulletin requiring Vermont health insurers to waive any out-of-pocket expenses for tests. Medicaid members will be tested for free, and the state will cover the cost for anyone who is uninsured.

Here’s what else you should know:

HOW DOES THE TEST WORK?

The test uses samples taken from the patient with swabs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least two swabs, one from the throat and the other from the nose. That’s where the virus tends to enter and cause an infection.

The samples are then sent off to the Vermont Department of Health, where it will be subject to a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. The technique can detect tiny traces of the virus’ genetic material and, in just a few hours, make billions and billions of copies of it – enough that a computer can detect it.

That process can take 4 to 6 hours. The Health Department says results will be returned to the person’s health care provider in 24 to 48 hours.

DOES THE VERMONT DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH HAVE ENOUGH TEST KITS?

An agency spokesman said the department has enough to meet the current need; and while demand for testing is expected to increase like it has in other states, the department is “monitoring the supply chain via the CDC” regularly.

The department said two commercial labs in the region — Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp — are now offering the tests, which could boost capacity significantly. However, Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina says it can take labs days or weeks to fine-tune their testing methods, much like a restaurant trying out a new recipe.

As of Tuesday, neither Quest nor LabCorp have submitted any results to the Health Department, as the testing protocol call for.

Testing capacity can be squeezed by several factors, including the time it takes to set up and conduct the test. Moreover, one person might require multiple samples to determine whether or not they are infected.

Click here for the latest updates on COVID-19 from the Vermont Department of Health.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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