By Mike Donoghue
Islander Staff Reporter
SOUTH HERO – The Champlain Islands Health Center in South Hero conducted seven tests for the detection of the deadly COVID-19 virus on Wednesday – the first day of monitoring by the state at the site.
The tests were given only to patients that had been pre-approved by the Vermont Health Department after getting a referral from their Primary Care Provider, according to Kim Anderson, public information officer for the health center.
The health center announced on Tuesday it planned to begin testing as a way to help determine if COVID 19 had reached Grand Isle County. Grand Isle and Essex Counties, the two extreme counties in western and eastern Vermont have no confirmed reports, the health department has said.
The announcement of the South Hero test site brought some critical comments on social media and even to The Islander through phone calls, emails and text messages.
Some people questioned why set up a test site in South Hero when Grand Isle County has no confirmed cases. Others suggested the Sand Bar State Park in nearby Milton as a better site so patients would not have to cross the causeway to enter the county.
The South Hero site is one of two new testing operations established by the state to broaden access. The other is at the Island Pond Health Center in Essex County.
Expanded testing means the Health Department will have more results to report – including in the number of new cases. So Vermonters should expect a potential jump in numbers in the coming days.
The increased testing also will allow for more people to know the care they need and what precautions to take, the Health Department said.
During Gov. Phil Scott’s daily press conference on Wednesday, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine explained the state is trying to get a clearer picture of the spread of the COVID-19 virus within Vermont.
There have been 321 confirmed cases in Vermont, up 28 cases from Tuesday.
Also 3 more COVID-19 deaths were reported bringing the total to 28 statewide in three weeks, .
“Wouldn’t it be strange that there are no cases in Grand Isle County but everywhere around it there are?” Dr. Levine said in response to a question from The Islander.
“Maybe it’s because people in Grand Isle County haven’t had access to a facility to do testing,” he said. Without adequate testing the local residents don’t know if they do or don’t have the virus, Dr. Levine said.
He said the South Hero site will allow better access. The commissioner said it is not just a pop-up site like the one opened over the weekend at Landmark College in Putney.
South Hero is part of federally qualified health center that already exists and there are special hours for testing, Dr. Levine said.
The doctor said there is no expectation of a large influx of new people coming to the site. Many are likely are patients from Grand Isle County and are connected to the health center.
Dr. Levine said that is part of the logic behind how the Health Department has strategically tried to develop test sites where they are needed to provide access to testing for the residents of Vermont.
Anderson said everything went smoothly on the first day. The test kits arrived shortly before noon when the site opened.
She did say they may try to order heaters for the 10-foot-by-20-foot white tent erected on the back side of the health center. It got a little chilly during the afternoon for the 4 or 5 workers, including a greeter, the lead provider and a nurse or medical assistant, Anderson said.
The tent is not a drive-in or drive-thru. It is designed to hold computers, test kits, equipment, tables and chairs for the staff and related items.
People are not allowed to just drive up and ask for tests, both Anderson and Kate Reed, interim chief executive officer for the health center, stressed.
The health center will be offering the tests from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Anderson said there is no way to tell how many tests will be conducted each day. Once somebody has gone through all the proper clearances, he or she is able to come to the site, Anderson said.
There will be no direct contact between the patient and the staff.
Patients drive up next to the white tent. The patient must produce proof of identity -- often displaying a driver’s license -- through a window.
The name is cross-checked on the list of approved people. Once confirmed, they will be asked to pull ahead and receive the kit for the test.
The health center can be reached by calling (802) 372-4687.