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Vermont Governor’s weekly briefing focuses on changes to school guidance for COVID testing

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC

Vermont Governor Phil Scott brought agency leaders and a leading pediatrician to his weekly briefing today to explain the state’s decision to eliminate school administrations’ responsibility for COVID-19 contact tracing when students test positive for the virus.

On Friday, the Vermont Agency of Education announced changes in how contact tracing and testing is conducted in schools. The decision, according to Education Secretary Dan French, is based on two variables: the ability of school staff to sustain contact tracing and the surge of the Omicron variant.

“Last week our decision making came to a pivotal moment when our public health team concluded that contact tracing and surveillance testing were not going to be as effective against Omicron. Contact tracing in schools as we knew it will stop in favor of response notification to parents that includes recommendations for testing depending on the vaccination status of the students,” said French. “The antigen testing in schools will shift from what we used to call Test-to-Stay where schools administered the tests on-site to an approach where schools will distribute the antigen tests to families and staff for administration at home.”

Dr. Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says school-based contact tracing was unsustainable even before the Omicron variant began to spread. She says pediatricians across Vermont were working on a plan before the latest surge to help educators and child care providers.

“We recommend school nurses should continue to have their resources to provide on-site diagnostic testing to symptomatic students and staff. They should continue to have the ability to provide take home antigen or PCR testing to these symptomatic individuals.” Bell continued, “With regards to other types of testing such as asymptomatic screening or surveillance testing, testing after close contact, these types of testing should shift from the school setting to the home setting. We strongly encourage all eligible to be vaccinated. Vermont has the highest rate of 5 to 11 year old's vaccinated in the country and yet its only just over half of the folks in that age group.”

Vermont follows hospitalization and death data to determine the severity of the pandemic. Governor Scott, a Republican, referenced neighboring New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s comments on COVID hospitalization data.

“It’s interesting that New York for instance has data that says that 37 percent of those who are in the hospital are in not for COVID but have COVID while they’re there. Regardless once they’re in the hospital and they have COVID it does impact health care and the hospitals.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine added:

“We’re actually trying to get a better handle on understanding who is admitted because of COVID, who is admitted and then you find out they have COVID because they got a test in the Emergency Room on the way up to the floor. It’s not always black and white,” said Levine. “COVID could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back even though it wasn’t mainly their reason for admission. So it’s not always super straightforward. But we’re trying to get a glimpse into that in Vermont now.”

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