Message from the CEO
by Jeff Tieman
VAHHS President and CEO

With March now well underway, so too is the march toward a vaccinated Vermont. More than one fifth of Vermonters have received at least one vaccine dose. Nationally, the pace of distribution and administration quickens by the day. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine offers not only another source but one that can reach more populations, since it is not as challenging to store.

This week, teachers and those with high-risk conditions will begin to be vaccinated in our state. As my VAHHS colleague Emma Harrigan pointed out in her column last week, and as Gov. Scott and others have recently described, children need to be in school. Vaccinating educators and daycare staff not only gets kids back to school, but also fuels our economy.

Now that nursing home residents and people over 70 have been vaccinated at high rates, people who have underlying health conditions are eligible beginning this week. From there, the pace will only speed up as the supply chain improves and Vermont’s collaborative network of vaccine providers stands more and more ready for new doses.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Senate passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion relief bill that includes resources for COVID testing, vaccine distribution, health insurance coverage and grants for work in mental health and substance use disorder. There is lots more, including of course major help for families, states and local communities.

As the House of Representatives takes up the Senate bill in Washington, our legislature in Vermont will return too, following a break last week. On deck are state COVID relief, the Interstate Nursing Licensure Compact and other important priorities, including a prohibition on guns in hospitals.

As committees re-convene and the two legislative bodies prepare for crossover, VAHHS will continue to encourage state support for workforce expansion, health disparity research, mental health resources and COVID relief that assists health care providers and Vermont communities and individuals.

With the sun shining bright a little more often, and vaccines flowing a little more readily, spring feels closer each day. If we stay on our current course here in Vermont, and don’t lose patience too soon with still-critical prevention measures, we will see a spring that truly fits the season’s definition.
In the News
Hospitals await plan for Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution
Brattleboro Reformer

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will soon join the other two making their way into arms across the state.

“We are one step closer to putting this pandemic behind us and building back stronger than before,” Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement following the federal Food and Drug Administration granting emergency use authorization for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 27.

“With a new vaccine coming online, we will be able to scale up our efforts, speed up our timeframes and broaden our eligibility faster.”

Dr. Kat McGraw, chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said her group hasn’t received any information yet on the state’s plan for distributing the J&J vaccine. Officials at BMH and Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, which both offer vaccination clinics, anticipate details might be shared today at the governor’s news conference.

While the J&J vaccine has an efficacy rate of 72 percent compared to 95 percent after two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, McGraw said they were in clinical trials at different times “so it’s not really apples to apples in terms of the environment for comparing it.”

Virus in Vermont: In the state lab, early Covid days were a powder keg of long days and high anxiety

The first specimens arrived at Christine Matusevich’s lab in Colchester at the start of March. It was a small batch to be tested for a virus she thought would come and go.

By March 19, her team at the state Department of Health lab had received 19 samples suspected of containing Covid-19. The number doubled the next day, “and then it kind of spiraled out of control,” said Matusevich, the lab’s microbiology unit coordinator.

Thirty-eight cases per day turned to 50. Fifty turned to 60, then 80, then 140.

The state lab — the only testing facility for the virus in Vermont — has run more than 120,000 tests for the coronavirus, four times the number of tests it normally completes in a year.

During Covid’s initial spread through Vermont in March and April, as communities panicked and people sheltered in place, Matusevich’s team scrambled for supplies and worked long days, testing samples by hand. They did so with some frustration and under stress, but also they felt a sense of pride.

“When Covid hit, and we were in the forefront for the first time, I think, in my 23 years here, it felt good,” Matusevich said. “We had people stopping in and providing food for us, and we had kids making us signs saying, ‘Not all superheroes wear capes.’”

Virus in Vermont: ER nurse advocates for marginalized patients
VT Digger

Patricia Johnson hears the dings and whistles of the emergency room when she falls asleep, sometimes in the early morning hours after a night shift.

Johnson alternates between the day and the night shift as an emergency room nurse at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Before her night shifts, she drops the kids at her parents’ house, then leaves work at 6:30 a.m., and often heads straight to her second job at Recovery House, Inc., an hour away in Wallingford, where she’s the nurse manager.

Then she tries to catch a few hours of sleep, and when she wakes up, she’ll take her three kids to sports practice or help them with virtual school. One week in mid-February, she was focused on helping her youngest son sign into his online classroom. Bennington County’s rate of Covid-19 cases led New England until recently, and her youngest son’s school had temporarily pivoted to all-remote.

ohnson, a single mother, switched careers four years ago and considers nursing a dream job, an ideal match for her skills, even though it often leaves her exhausted.

Before she became a nurse, she worked no fewer than two — and often three — different jobs, drawing on her degrees in criminal justice and leadership management. Several odd jobs in between paid the bills, lifeguarding and waitressing, for example.

“I mean, name it,” she said. “Blockbuster.”

Study finds schools are safe during pandemic

Researchers at the UVM Medical Center say a new COVID antibody survey of Vermont students and staff shows schools can open in a safe way and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Blood samples were collected from 532 participants — 336 students and 196 teachers -- of the Colchester School District to see if they had COVID antibodies. Overall, a little more than 4.5% had the antibodies -- 4.6% of students and 4.9% of staff. Kindergarten through 5th grade students had the lowest levels at 1.8% percent. Sixth through 12th grade students were at nearly 7%.

Dr. Benjamin Lee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the UVM Medical Center Children’s Hospital, says these these findings are indicators that schools are safe to return to.

“For the children in this study and the teachers in this study, they have been in school this whole academic term. And what these data would suggest is being in school right now is not associated with higher rates of COVID-19 and it is good confirmatory data that the schools are safe environments, that in-person learning can be provided safely without concern for increasing virus transmission,” Lee said.

NVRH now equipped to run COVID-19 tests in-house
Vermont Business Magazine

Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital (NVRH) has announced that the DiaSorin Simplexa Analyzer, which analyzes lab specimens for COVID-19, is now up and running. This analyzer helps patients who are receiving care within the hospital and those who have scheduled appointments by decreasing their wait times to as little as three hours.

With the addition of the DiaSorin Simplexa platform, NVRH now has two highly sensitive PCR based testing platforms. Having two separate platforms for COVID-19 testing helps ensure access to reliable and timely testing for patients receiving care at NVRH. It also reduces the risk of running out of tests completely.

“Laboratories across the country have been dealing with shortages in testing kits and supplies for multiple different tests, including COVID-19,” NVRH Laboratory Medical Director Jason Brazelton, MD said. “These supply chain interruptions significantly impact testing capacity, access to testing, and they can change from week to week with little warning.”

The increased COVID-19 testing capacity will allow NVRH to shorten the pre-procedure processing and waiting period significantly. Prior to the DiaSorin Simplexa Analyzer, patients who had scheduled procedures at NVRH would have had their testing performed at reference laboratories. Due to the time required for specimen transportation between multiple facilities, these tests would have been collected between five and seven days ahead of the procedure. The patient would then be required to quarantine.

Phish frontman aims to open addiction treatment center in Ludlow
Vermont Business Magazine

Phish guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio and his Divided Sky Foundation have bought an Okemo Mountain property they hope to convert into a treatment center for people facing alcoholism and drug addiction.

“Like so many people in America and so many in Vermont, I became addicted to opiates,” the 14-years-sober frontman for the Burlington-born rock band said in a statement Thursday. “I was extremely lucky to have access to care, and I know how important it is to be part of a recovery community. I’m grateful that we can help provide that opportunity for others.”

Anastasio’s foundation, recently launched to support caring and compassionate treatment for substance use disorders, has purchased the 18-acre Fox Run at Okemo property, which includes a 20-room lodge with a commercial kitchen, meeting space and an exercise facility.

The musician raised money for the foundation during an eight-week residency last fall at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre. “The Beacon Jams” — performed in a largely empty venue for an online audience — drew both raves for the way Anastasio reimagined music from his three-decade career as well as more than $1.2 million in donations.

“Substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life, and the problem is intimately linked with isolation — whether that’s isolation due to the pandemic or for any other reason,” Anastasio said in a statement.

Hospitals in the News
Mark Your Calendar