MANCHESTER — The state expects to have more information about a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the Northshire over the next few days.
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, and Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, told reporters Thursday that data was being collected and analyzed as they spoke and that would likely continue through the weekend.
Their conference was held in the wake of reports that dozens of people who have been administered antigen tests for COVID-19 at the Manchester Medical Center had those tests return positive.
“There’s still much that we need to discover that we don’t yet know,” said Smith.
Levine said the Department of Health learned July 3 about a single positive antigen test where the sample was from the Manchester Medical Center. Another was learned of on July 10.
“Since that time, Manchester Medical Center has recorded more cases, and to date we’re aware of more than 50 people who tested positive through antigen testing performed at the health center,” said Levine.
There is a difference between the antigen test and the PCR test the state uses when reporting COVID-19 data.
“Antigen tests are a much newer type of test only recently approved by the (Food and Drug Administration) and provide results much more quickly than PCR tests,” he said. “They’re intended to be screening tools for people who have symptoms and while they are a useful tool for screening patients, antigen tests may have a higher chance of missing an active infection and need to be confirmed. Positive antigen tests must be recorded with the health department for followup.”
He said the department treats a positive antigen test as a presumptive positive and takes the same actions had it been a positive PCR test.
Those folks are given guidance and, “We also, after the interview, conduct contact tracing to provide those individuals guidance to quarantine and to recommend testing as appropriate,” Levine said.
He said each positive antigen test is being followed up with a PCR test. So far, 10% of the positive antigen tests have been PCR tested. Two-thirds have come back negative on the PCR with the rest being positive.
“This is very curious, because antigen tests are more likely to result in false negatives than to result in false positives,” said Levine, adding that he’s currently looking at a small sample size and expects more data to roll in during the coming days.
Levine said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the antigen test isn’t recommended for people who aren’t showing COVID-19 symptoms. There haven’t been many studies done about the accuracy of the antigen test in those cases.
“It might turn out to be a great test for everyone, we just don’t know,” said Levine.
He said pop-up testing sites have been organized in that area to gather samples. In Londonderry, on Wednesday, 306 specimens were collected. Southwestern Vermont Health Care has a site at the Riley Rink at Hunter Park, located at 410 Hunter Park Road, Manchester Center, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for as many days as needed.
Levine said people in that area, and everywhere else, should wear face masks if they’re able, keep 6 feet away from others, wash their hands often and stay home if they’re sick.
“By taking personal responsibility and looking out for each other, we will protect one another and help prevent the further spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Levine said he expects there will be more confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the Manchester area, but there’s not enough information yet to call it an outbreak. Investigations are underway to determine what led to so many positive antigen tests. There are several theories, all are being looked into.
Smith reminded Vermonters that if they leave the state and travel to an area with a high number of COVID-19 cases, they’re required to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon returning, or for seven days if they get a test.
For their 60th wedding anniversary on Thursday, Robert and Marlene Knapp got to celebrate in a special way: Together.
The two had been physically close but ultimately separated for weeks. Robert “Bob” Knapp, 84, was living at the Meadows of Rutland, an assisted living facility, while Marlene, 80, was living at their home in Rutland Town.
Bob said they hadn’t seen each other since March. Marlene said they spent a lot of time on the phone, sometimes speaking 15 times a day.
“That’s been the hard thing for me. Not being able to go in, with papers, discussing with him. Couldn’t get to him,” she said.
Bob added, “You do what you have to.”
“There’s been no real secret to how we manage, we just manage. … You have a situation here where you have no choice. You live with it and make the best of it,” he said.
Bob had gone to stay at the Meadows while Marlene was planning to return to her home country, Germany, to celebrate her 80th birthday and participate in a class reunion. But Marlene said her flight was canceled two days before it was scheduled to leave.
Marlene’s trip was canceled as the flight was affected by the effort to flatten the curve of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus outbreak in Vermont resulted in Gov. Phil Scott declaring a state of emergency which prompted, among other measures, a quarantine, keeping Bob and Marlene apart until Wednesday when they got together with a big cake and their daughter, Renee, at an outdoor table adjacent to the Meadows to mark their wedding anniversary.
The couple are unlikely to have such a long separation in the future as they are in the process of selling their home and moving into a condominium very close to the Meadows. Bob, who lost a leg about four years ago, said he’s not sure when he’ll leave the Meadows to move into the condo but pointed out that decision was up to him.
He added that he needed a little more help these days meeting daily challenges since he lost his leg.
Bob said the separation during the quarantine wasn’t as bad as it could have been because Marlene had gone back to Germany at least once a year since they married in America when she was only 20.
“I said to him, ‘I only marry you if you let me go every year, one time a year to my parents.’ He kept his promise,” Marlene said.
Marlene said they met in a German jazz club where she met Bob, who was in the army at the time, in 1959. She said he drove her home in a car the night they met while her brother followed riding an Italian Lambretta motor scooter to chaperon.
Marlene described her experience living through World War II, as “Total, total war. Was in a bombed out house. I’m lucky I’m sitting here.” She said it was a big transition to come to America at the age of 20, not knowing anyone but Bob.
“It took a lot of guts. I didn’t know what I was coming to. … He picked me up in New York. I remember the heat, much warmer than Germany. I just looked up, I went “Ooooh, I never seen anything like New York City,’” she said.
But Marlene said her mother-in-law embraced her like her own daughter right away which made a big difference.
Bob and Marlene got married in a Catholic church in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. They lived in several areas of the United States while he worked for Sears and she raised their daughter and eventually entered the real estate field.
According to Bob, it was skiing, a hobby he pursued until he was 79, that introduced them to Vermont where they’re lived for about 15 years.
On Thursday, the Knapps were being visited by their daughter, Renee, who primarily lives in Germany, like her mother had before Marlene met Bob.
Asked about how they stayed together for 60 years, Marlene said they “let each other do what we wanted to do.”
“We left each other freedom, and we worked though as a team, as a team. We did,” she said.
Renee added that she believed her parents took the oath of marriage very seriously.
“In comparison nowadays, one maybe makes a major mistake, and that’s already a reason to have a divorce. That does not come into question for both of them,” she said.
The Knapps said what they were doing on Thursday afternoon, sharing cake as a family, was what they would do for the anniversary because they still needed to observe COVID precaution.
Congressman Peter Welch pointed to the work being done to update the storm sewer infrastructure on Library Avenue as the kind of project the federal government can support to bring direct benefit to local residents.
Welch visited the work site Thursday, in the area just across the torn-up road from Rutland Intermediate School, with Mayor David Allaire and Jeff Wennberg, commissioner of the city’s Public Works Department. He said the kind of construction, that continued during Welch’s visit, being done on Library Avenue was “important for the quality of drinking water, and it’s really important for the quality of the water in our lakes and streams.”
“Congress understands this because this is a problem faced by not just Rutland and not just our communities here in Vermont but all across the country,” Welch said.
Welch said he remembered early in his congressional career, he visited Rutland and Allaire’s predecessor, Christopher Louras, showed him a section of pipe “filled with gunk,” that Louras said was similar to water pipes though the city.
Louras told Welch those pipes were installed before the Civil War and they’re still in place, Welch said.
According to Welch, there has been bipartisan talk among Washington, D.C., lawmakers for year about the need for federal support for infrastructure upgrades including water systems.
Welch said the U.S. House of Representatives had approved the Moving America Forward act. While he said he didn’t know if the Senate would take it up, Welch said “we’re pushing as hard as we can for it.”.
“Every single official that I speak to in Vermont is grappling with the challenge of how do we approve our systems when our taxpayers really can’t afford it,” Welch said. “The bottom line here is the federal government has a role to play. It has to provide some help to our overburdened property tax payers by an infrastructure bill that will give money to our communities.”
While Welch never mentioned the president by name, he said there was “tension” in Washington now and said if there was no action on the bill right away, members of the House of Representatives wanted the bill in place in the event there is an opportunity “to act and act quickly” in January.
Allaire explained the project that was going on around Welch and others gathered on Library Avenue was part of an ongoing effort to separate storm sewers and addressing the problem of combined sewer overflows, or CSO.
While what was happening on Wednesday was supported by a voter-approved bond, Allaire said similar work could continue, furthering Rutland’s efforts to upgrade its water infrastructure, “with the help of the federal government.”
Wennberg said there were gaps in the city’s ability to treat wastewater due to the design of the wastewater treatment plant from the early 1960s.
“Since 1988, the city has invested about $17.5 million, this project will push us up over $20 million, in addressing those issues, and we’ve made enormous progress,” he said.
However, Wennberg said city officials weren’t done and even when the Library Avenue work is complete, there are expected to be 20 to 30 years of projects needed to modernize.
Wennberg said there are no official estimates of the costs but said it could be as much as $30 million to $40 million.
“That’s the critical thing is that we’ve had a lot of federal and state support in the past. We’re never going to make it to where we need to be without continued federal and state support,” he said.
Wennberg said some components of the Rutland wastewater treatment plant are reaching the end of their expected useful life and will need to be replaced and the pipes to which Welch referred are being slowly replaced in what he said was a 100-year project.
“Mission success is critical, but team safety is our highest priority.”
NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, telling media about how coronavirus pandemic prompted a 7-month delay in launching a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. — A5