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Hospitals, human services respond to virus emergency

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BRATTLEBORO — Health care agencies around the world have been implementing their emergency preparedness plans in response to the new coronavirus pandemic. That includes right here in Windham County and throughout Vermont, where hospitals and care providers are on alert for any sign of the infectious virus.

"We regularly care for patients in the hospital that are being treated for a myriad of medical issues that require isolation precautions, such as sepsis, pneumonia, etc.," said Dr. Kathleen McGraw, chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. "This continues to be the case."

If and when there is a patient diagnosed with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) at BMH, said McGraw, the Vermont Department of Health will provide the announcement.

On Friday, at 1 p.m., the Vermont Department of Health issued its daily update, which noted there have been only two cases of COVID-19 detected in the state, one in Bennington County and one in Burlington.

"As far as we know," said McGraw, "there are no positives in Windham County."

DOH is the central hub for all things COVID-19. Many of the people the Reformer spoke to advised all Vermonters to check the DOH website at every day for the most up-to-date information and for tips on staying healthy or what to do if you suspect you are ill.

"Things are changing fast," said Andrea Seaton, director of development and community relations at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend. Seaton recommended people also visit the CDC website at

"It's important at this time that people get their information from credible sources," said Seaton.

Sara Simeone, vice president of quality and compliance at Visiting Nurses and Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire, said VNA is implementing its own emergency response plan.

"This isn't a perfect science, but we have experts on the state and federal level who are helping us best protect our patients, our staff and our community members," she said.

Simeone said VNA's care providers are in the homes of their patients and have to be incredibly aware of any infectious or contagious diseases and viruses, not just coronavirus.

"While this is new, this specific virus, trying to keep yourself safe as a health care professional is nothing new," she said. VNA's providers are talking with their patients about the virus and whether they are vulnerable.

Dr. Gaurav Chawla, the medical director at the Brattleboro Retreat, said they have activated their incident command center and have been implementing their own response plan.

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"Part of that is monitoring our staff- and patient-related issues very closely and responding to them according to the CDC guidelines," said Chawla.

"We are also working closely with the Vermont Hospital Association, the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health," said Retreat CEO and President Louis Josephson. "And we just had a table top exercise with Dartmouth Medical Center to plan in the eventuality our capacity is limited due to staffing issues or ill patients."

Chalwa said all of the Retreat's 700-plus employees understand the seriousness of the situation and are keeping a close watch on their own health.

"We are instructing them in case of certain symptoms or other risk factors there are steps to take including making the right call to stay home if they need to," he said.

At Brattleboro Housing Partnership, the challenges might be a just a little different than at a health care facility, but the precautions are pretty similar. BHP manages 307 apartment homes for seniors, persons with disabilities and families, spread in six developments throughout Brattleboro, including Red Clover Commons, the Samuel Elliot Apartments and Hayes Court.

"In our buildings, we keep our community spaces clean throughout the year," said Christine Hazard, BHP's executive director. "Especially during flu season. In the last few weeks we have increased our cleaning."

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BHP has also implemented its response plan and is updating it as necessary.

Support And Services at Home provides two wellness coordinators and a nurse at BHP, working with 200 residents. SASH is also open to community members that are Medicare recipients. These folks know their clients and are checking their health status on a regular basis, said Hazard.

A number of nursing homes throughout the area are temporarily restricting visitors to their facilities to prevent exposure of the virus to their elderly residents.

Anne Bilodeau, chief human resources officer at Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Vermont is co-lead with Dr. Paul Boutin, HCRS' medical director, of the organization's emergency response team.

"We went into emergency response mode about two weeks ago," said Bilodeau.

HCRS provides a number of services to the community, including responding to emergency departments to care for patients experiencing a mental health crisis. HCRS also works with troubled families and youth, those struggling with substance use disorder, and children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also offers residential services for recovery centers and works with people living in the community who are managing a mental illness.

Bilodeau said all of HCRS' employees are taking appropriate measures to keep themselves and their patients healthy.

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"I believe that HCRS is well-poised to deal with this," she said. "We are responding and deploying our efforts accordingly."

One change HCRS has instituted is converting its crisis teams, those that respond to emergency rooms, to telemedicine.

"We will provide the same level of service to our clients but in a different format," she said.

McGraw said pandemic response is part of BMH's emergency preparedness. And agencies and organizations in the United States were able to watch from a distance as China responded to the initial outbreak.

"They figured out how to identify and treat this, all in very short order," she said. "When this started to increase in China, we started looking at our own plan and implemented it the end of January, the beginning of February. The time to ramp up and get ready have been helpful."

McGraw noted that amidst the coronavirus precautions, BMH and other service providers are still providing ordinary care to their community members.

"We still need to treat people with regular emergencies ... heart attacks, diabetes, breaking a leg, slipping or falling ... we still have all these usual medical needs," she said. "We need to continue to take care of and are continuing to take care of these."

People are advised to call their primary care provider if they're not feeling well.

Testing for COVID-19 involves taking one swab from a patient's throat and another one through the nostril into the back of their throat. All swabs are sent to the state lab for testing.

"Call us and let us know how you're feeling," said Seaton. "Or if you're worried or feeling nervous. We'll take what actions as necessary as a result of a phone call."

Car-side swabbing is also available, said Gina Pattison, spokeswoman for BMH. "If a test needs to be done, we will call the Department of Health. The primary care clinician can arrange car-side services, but it must be ordered by the state."

Simeone said VNA has nurses to answer the phones 24 hours a day, "As we always have."

Bob Audette can be contacted at Chris Mays can be contacted at


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