Early data hints that Vermont’s efforts to combat COVID-19 are paying off

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Social distancing and other efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont appear to be paying off, state officials said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon.

Armed with two weeks of data to compare to early tracking and projections of the pandemic’s reach in Vermont, officials have identified a decline in the growth rate of confirmed cases in the state. This has happened even as testing has ramped up in recent days. 

“That improvement can change considerably if people change their habits,” Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, told reporters during a media briefing. “We are seeing a reduction in case growth in Vermont that lines up with the actions Vermonters have taken.”

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COVID-19 is the official name of the disease related to the coronavirus that first started to affect people in China at the end of 2019.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. 

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Data models crafted last week displayed three potential trajectories for the spread of the virus in the state: Worst, most likely and best, Pieciak said. The results since show Vermont tracking well below the steepest, most dangerous curve and — tentatively, at least — somewhere between the two other, flatter curves.

That trend pushes the “peak” of the curve out further into spring. It may have also bought the state’s health care system more time to increase capacity and acquire resources necessary to contend with the worst-case scenario if the situation turns in the opposite direction

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Pieciak said. “The worst is ahead of us. We anticipate a peak sometime in middle- to late-April or early-May time period.

“We really need people to be vigilant and carry through with the social distancing that has shown some early glimmers of hope.”

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Inside the numbers

As of March 26, Vermont had experienced an average five-day growth rate in the number of cases of 32 percent over the preceding 15 days, according to the data Pieciak shared. That was the 13th-highest in the nation at that point.  

By April 1, the trajectory had shallowed out to a 12 percent. The visual of this change is visible in the following graph:

“That really underscores how volatile and rapid the change can be in a small period of time,” Pieciak said. 

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Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont were essentially doubling every three days from March 17 to March 26. But it took more than five days for the total number of cases in the state to double since then.

As of Thursday afternoon, Vermont had seen 338 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 4,711 tests. Twenty-nine people were hospitalized with the virus. Seventeen people had died.

“Part of this is due to the sacrifices that Vermonters are making … by socially distancing themselves from their neighbors, their friends and their families,” Pieciak said. “It tells us also that they need to keep up those sacrifices and in fact double down on them.”

An analysis by Northeastern University showed Vermont has seen a roughly 50 percent drop in residents’ activity and movement over the second half of March, which is even less than during a large snowstorm on Feb. 7.

Planning, preparing for the worst

Officials said the state government has planned for the outbreak based on the most dire of its forecast models. This includes hospital space — regular beds, Intensive Care Unit beds — staffing and equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“What we know is that under any scenario we need to plan for more capacity,” said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

“If you look at history, in particular, you’ll find that where there have been failures in major events like this the fact is they did not plan for the worst-case scenario,” Smith said.

Vermont’s existing stock included 622 hospital beds, 135 ICU beds and 93 ventilators, according to data presented by Pieciak.

Under the worst-case scenario, the state learned, upwards of 2,600 hospital beds, more than 1,000 ICU beds and 560 ventilators could be needed to handle the COVID-19 surge. Those data visualizations can be seen below:

In the scenario deemed “most likely” late last month, COVID-19 patients could overrun the state’s existing ICU space and ventilator supply by mid-April. 

At its current trajectory there’s a chance Vermont may exceed its current ventilator capacity. As a precaution, the state has ordered 452 to meet what could be the top-end demand, according to Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

“If we keep on the current projection we’ll be close,” Schirling said. “But right now we’re projecting there’s the possibility we will outstrip our ventilator capacity.”

Schirling said “millions of pieces” of PPE are on order, with one shipment arriving already.

State, hospitals building out capacity

The recent effort to prepare for a surge in cases has seen the state, with the help of the National Guard and individual hospitals, prepare to add 900 beds at various facilities around the state.

This includes a pair of staged surge trailers with 50 beds each in Windsor and Brattleboro, and a 400-bed site at the Champlain Valley Exposition announced Thursday by Gov. Phil Scott. The trailers are two of eight located around the state as part of the its normal medical surge protocol, Schirling said.

The state’s Emergency Operations Center and office of the chief medical examiner  have also started to deploy 

“This is a just-in-case-scenario. We do not want to be caught flat-footed,” Schirling said. 

Scott also called all Vermonters into service with the launch of a new website allowing people to sign up for volunteer assistance to support the state’s response to COVID-19: https://vermont.gov/volunteer. The website directs those with medical and health care skills to the Medical Reserve Corp (MRC), and those with other needed skills to a quick registration process to sign up to help.

Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth.

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