COVID-19 testing is the hot holiday item this year in Vermont


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  • Colin Flanders © ️ Seven days
  • A sign at CVS on Burlington’s Church Street

A mad rush for COVID-19 testing is underway in Vermont as residents scramble to determine if they should reunite with family and friends over the upcoming vacation weekend.

Demand for rapid tests has far outstripped supply in recent weeks, emptying pharmacies and leaving workers uncertain when they will be restocked. Even the well-oiled Vermont state-run testing machine was pushed to its limits: queues stretch to popular walk-in sites, while the most populous county made appointments you for next week.

The arrival of the highly contagious variant of Omicron has raised the stakes, putting even fully vaccinated people at increased risk of infections and threatening to send another wave of sick patients to overcrowded Vermont hospitals. The variant accounted for nearly three-quarters of all cases in the United States over the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the nationally dominant strain less than eight weeks after its first identification in the world.

If Vermont cases were to jump 50% after the holidays – which happened last year – the state could end up with an average of 600 new infections a day, and a single day’s tally could eclipse 1,000.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, heads of state urged people to take precautions where possible before the public holiday weekend.

“I know many of us are eager to celebrate with loved ones who are exhausted from whatever COVID keeps throwing at us, but either way we can lower the risk, the safer we will all be,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine. “We don’t want the lasting memory of 2021 to be regret that our holiday gathering could have gone safer.”

Public health officials have been urging people for weeks to get tested before holiday gatherings, making rapid COVID-19 testing one of the hottest elements of the season. These tests, which can be purchased over the counter, are not as sensitive as PCR tests, but can be much more useful when trying to determine if you are currently contagious, as they provide results in 15 minutes instead of a day or two.

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Vermont requires some health insurers to cover the bill; a box of two tests typically costs around $ 25. But the process was riddled with confusion.

The rule, announced earlier this month, only applied to commercial insurers, leaving out hundreds of thousands of Vermonters. And many pharmacies weren’t ready to immediately start implementing the change, forcing people to buy the tests themselves instead, and then seek reimbursement after the fact.

While many pharmacies now say they can process complaints in advance, few have it in stock.

Calls to a dozen pharmacies across the state on Monday yielded no available tests. A Montpellier Walgreens had some in stock this weekend, but “they went fast and furious,” a worker said on the spot. A CVS in Winooski had turned away nearly 50 people that day alone. Most stores had no idea when the next delivery would arrive, but employees doubted it would be before Christmas.

The requests were so frequent at CVS on Church Street in Burlington that workers posted handwritten posters declaring the pharmacy sterile. “Every two minutes someone is looking for one,” said an on-site pharmacist.

Walgreens and CVS said this week they are experiencing an unprecedented series of tests as the holidays approach. “In the event that a local store experiences a temporary shortage, our teams have a process in place to quickly replenish supply,” a CVS spokesperson wrote in an email.

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Scott administration will be offering free rapid home tests on various pop-up sites on December 23 and 30 in an effort to supplement the pharmacy’s offerings. The state’s stock includes 10,000 LAMP tests – which work the same as PCR tests but produce results in 30 minutes – for people who book an appointment. Another 50,000 antigen tests have been booked for walk-in visits.

It is not known if this will be enough to meet the demand: with just 30,000 tests for each of the two days, there will only be about 1 in 20 Vermonters.

“We had to look for a supply chain on this,” Social Services Secretary Mike Smith said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I was hoping the pharmacies would have a bigger supply chain – this appears to be a national problem and something that hopefully the federal government will fix.”

There was movement on this front Tuesday. President Joe Biden announced that the federal government will begin providing 500 million free rapid tests through a website where people can order them directly from their homes.

The federal government is also sending medical reinforcements to six states – including Vermont – where hospitals have been hit hard by the latest wave of COVID-19.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent 30 paramedics to Vermont to help transport patients between hospitals and other medical facilities. Another 20 paramedics and paramedics arrived at the University of Vermont medical center on Friday and most are expected to work there for at least two weeks, helping staff areas for COVID-19 patients.

“They will provide support for patients’ basic activities of daily living, taking vital signs, aiding patient mobility – such as turning in bed, getting to a chair, or walking – and providing support for patients. ‘other non-clinical aids like making sure supplies are ready for patients, “the medical center said in a statement.

“The team will provide much needed support to members of the UVM medical center care team who have been caring for a record number of patients for months,” the press release continued.

The past week has brought some relief to the Vermont healthcare system. The number of cases edged down, with the seven-day average falling to 400 after peaking at 485 earlier this month.

The number of available hospital beds had nearly doubled over the past week to around 100 statewide. A similar trend had occurred in intensive care units; after a handful of days in which the state had less than a dozen free intensive care beds, there were more than 20, according to state data.

There is also hope that Omicron may cause less severe infections than previous strains of the virus. Hospital admissions in South Africa, where the new variant was first located, have so far remained lower than previous waves. Vaccines, on the other hand, seem to resist the worst results, although experts say people who are boosted have much more protection.

Still, there is great concern that Omicron’s remarkable ability to infect people poses a major threat to healthcare systems. When asked if Vermont was ready for the storm to head their way, Scott said it was, although he quickly added that it depended a lot on the intensity.

“That’s the billion dollar question,” he said. “How bad is it going to be?” ”

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