COLCHESTER – A dry cough. Aches. Shortness of breath. A fever.
Those symptoms are common enough during Vermont’s months-long flu season — but do they also warrant a test for infection by the new coronavirus, also known as the virus that causes COVID-19?
Hold your horses, advises Helen Reid, director of the state health department’s Surveillance Division: First call your doctor or other healthcare provider. They’ll help you decide how urgently you should act.
Unless you’re in a life-threatening situation, Reid explained, showing up unannounced at a hospital could put more people at risk. It could overwhelm the state’s capacity to test folks who are most likely to be carriers of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
But if you’re directed to take a test, there’s a whisker of good news: it is free to all Vermonters.
Can the labs keep up with the demand?
Disinfectant and hand sanitizer wafted through the hallways at the Health Department Laboratory hallways in Colchester during a quick visit last week.
Across from office cubicles, in a glassed-off room, two gloved-and-gowned specialists worked steadily with what appeared to be an ample supply of coronavirus test samples. The pace is bound to quicken, said Reid, who oversees health surveillance at the facility.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the lab had ramped up to a maximum capacity of 161 tests per day, which is enough to meet current demand, according to Christie Vallencourt, the health department’s chronic disease information director.
Can the lab keep pace with COVID-19? No one, so far, is making predictions about how quickly this pandemic will spread through the Green Mountain State.
Vermont’s strategy (and that of most of the rest of the U.S.) is to keep things slow and steady.
Avoiding a spike in cases through “social distancing,” according to the World Health Organization, will ease the strain on clinics and hospitals — and avoid the depletion of medical supplies.
If you’re feeling woozy — or worse
To see if you should be tested, ask to be interviewed, over the phone, by your doctor or a healthcare provider at a clinic.
They’ll likely ask:
- What are your symptoms?
- Do you have any other health complications that could potentially short-change your immunity?
- Where have you traveled recently?
- Have you socialized or otherwise been exposed to people who are at a high risk of spreading COVID-19?
If you’re identified as likely COVID-19 patient, you’ll be directed to a test site — usually a hospital or clinic — where a clinician will swab the deeper recesses of your nasal passageways and/or throat with something that looks like an extra-long Q-tip.
The test can be uncomfortable. It can induce sneezing or coughing. The good news: It doesn’t take long to snag a sample of goop, pop it into a bottle and have a courier whisk the sample to the state lab in Colchester.
Results of your test (a positive or a negative) are usually finalized 24 to 48 hours after the lab processes your sample. The lab will pass the outcome along to your healthcare provider, who will contact you.
Tests that are inconclusive are tested again the next day. If results are still murky, the Vermont lab contacts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for further direction.
What if it’s bad news?
A “positive” test result means that at the very least, you’ll be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days to avoid infecting others.
The vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 develop mild-to-moderate flu-like symptoms, according to the CDC.
But more vulnerable members of the community — the elderly, the sick and the immune-compromised — are more likely to be promptly hospitalized. The weakest and most ill may have to fight for their lives.
Too much (online) information?
Vermonters predisposed to phones can do more than just call their doctor for a test. The Health Department recommends:
- If you have questions about COVID-19, dial 2-1-1
- If you are returning from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Europe (including the U.K. and Ireland) or Japan, call Health Department Epidemiology at (802) 863-7240.
- Currently, the most effective coronavirus-killer is within easy reach: soap and water.
Contact Joel Banner Baird at 802-660-1843 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @VTgoingUp.
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