By Gregory J. Lamoureux
County Courier

ST. ALBANS: We’ve learned that there has been a positive COVID-19 test by a healthcare worker at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans.

The test, according to our sources, was conducted over the weekend, causing the hospital to take extra precautions with other employees who may have had contact with the infected employee.

An all employee notice was sent out about the positive test result. In that email, hospital officials said that employees in the Emergency Department would be utilizing N95 masks for the week as they continue to be screened for any possibility of transmission of the virus.

When asked at the Governor’s twice-weekly press conference, Dr. Mark Levine said it is not unusual for medical workers to have contracted the novel coronavirus, with an estimated 20% of those who have contracted the virus being employees in the medical field.

The County Courier was the first news agency to make the positive test public after asking the Governor’s staff questions about the positive test on Tuesday.

According to Jonathan Billings, Vice President of Community Relations at Northwestern Medical Center, the worker who tested positive notified the hospital after being tested outside of the hospital network.

That employee is reported to have worn all proper protective equipment, as well as using social distancing guidelines in the two shifts leading up to the positive test.

Northwestern Medical Center would only say that the employee was part of the “care team,” but would not say what role the employee took with patients. We’ve learned from a reputable source that this employee works as an Emergency Department Doctor.

Billings would not say how contact tracers determined the doctor contracted the virus outside of the hospital setting, but the County Courier has learned that the doctor’s case has been traced back to at least two other cases in the community.

Out of an abundance of caution given the close working conditions in the Emergency Department, all members of the ED staff are being required to wear N95 masks for the week while the test results are pending.

It is not clear why a test was conducted, however, Billings said this person was asymptomatic leading up to the test conducted.

In a written statement relating to the positive test, Billings said anyone who has had contact with the person with a positive test, has been notified, and proper follow-up testing is being conducted.

“Out of an abundance of caution given the close working conditions in the ED, all members of the ED staff are wearing N95 masks for the week while the testing is completed,” Billings said.

Dr. Levine said he did not expect an elevated risk to the public who might need to visit the hospital for services, as all hospitals in Vermont are taking precautions to contain the spread of the virus.

Billings said that in the springtime the hospital experienced a similar situation where an employee contracted COVID-19, and contact tracing had to occur with other employees.

Specifics on exactly how many people have been tested were not available, according to Billings, but he believed everyone had been notified and tested, and the hospital is awaiting the results of those tests.

The positive test of the employee became known on Saturday, October 10th, according to Billings.

From a public safety point of view, Billings said it’s important for the public to know that the hospital believes this infection is contained, and patients should not be afraid to seek out care at the hospital, noting that the delay in seeking emergency medicine far outweighs any potential risk of seeking treatment at Northwestern Medical Center.

There have been a total of 131 Franklin County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, three of those have tested positive in the past 14 days- the time period thought to be most at risk for transmitting the virus to others in the community.

Hospital officials suggest this serves as a strong reminder that anyone can contract COVID-19. It also underscores the importance of proper precautions to reduce the risk of transmission of illness, particularly as we enter the flu season. Use proper hand hygiene and maintain social distance from others, wear a cloth face covering when proper social distancing of at least six feet cannot be maintained, stay home when you are sick, and contact your primary care provider for guidance.

The public is recommended to get your flu shot – it does not protect against COVID-19, but it does protect against influenza which is also a personal and public health concern.