Vermont aims for 7,000 virus tests per week and will expand contact tracing

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With an eye on continuing to reopen the state, Vermont officials said Wednesday will ramp up testing for COVID-19 and expand contact tracing efforts over the next few weeks.

Gov. Phil Scott said that increasing the number of people tested for the virus is key to identifying and isolating outbreaks that could slow the state’s approach to letting people return to work.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says he wants to triple the number of people tested to about 7,000 a week. He said his team will target specific groups in stages.

“Ever since the start of this pandemic, as a state, we have worked aggressively to ensure the testing supplies needed to maintain stable and consistent access for testing sites across the state,” he said. “We have sought to focus on vulnerable groups, to be strategic, evidence-based and science-driven, to try to improve on lengthy quarantines for asymptomatic people.”

State health officials say they are currently testing about 2,000 people per week.

The first step will focus on vulnerable populations and health care workers in group settings, where outbreaks have been most prevalent. Long-term care and other facilities where a case of the virus has been identified will have access to facility-wide testing.

Debra Leonard, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UVM Medical Center, called the decision to focus on more testing “a very important and timely plan.

“Working on the front line is working on the front line,” she said. “So the testing simply allows us to detect when an infection has happened promptly, so that there are no delays in getting that diagnosis.”

More health care workers will be tested under the expansion. Asymptomatic workers who have contact with COVID-19 patients will now be tested.

Scott said testing alone will not eliminate the risk.

“An increase in testing and tracing will only help in our restart efforts if we also continue to separate ourselves, wash our hands disinfect things we touch, wear our masks” said Scott.

The state’s contact tracing program will be enhanced to accommodate the increased number of positive cases that could be identified as more tests are administered. Tracing will be expanded to include the 14 days prior to symptoms of COVID-positive individuals, to try to identify their source of infection.

The Health Department also announced a new app called “Sara Alert” to help with contact tracing. The app will send messages to those infected and their contacts to check on symptoms. The state is able to handle 300-900 cases and their contacts per week under this new strategy.

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