Global Statistics

All countries
527,813,178
Confirmed
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
All countries
483,888,360
Recovered
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
All countries
6,300,800
Deaths
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
Monday, May 23, 2022

Global Statistics

All countries
527,813,178
Confirmed
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
All countries
483,888,360
Recovered
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
All countries
6,300,800
Deaths
Updated on May 23, 2022 9:07 am
Molderizer and Safe Shield

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

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For six weeks, Christine Matusevich oversaw Vermont’s only testing facility for the virus, charting firsthand Covid’s initial spread in March and April. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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.

Virus in Vermont on blue background
As the Covid-19 pandemic entered its second year, VTDigger interviewed dozens of Vermonters about how they’ve coped, how they’ve grieved and how they’ve changed. Read more on our Virus in Vermont page.

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.’”

Supply shortages strain small lab

Before the pandemic, Matusevich led a team of half a dozen in the small lab, testing samples for HIV, rabies, the flu and other diseases. 

In February, Matusevich and a supervisor talked about the possibility of Covid testing, two days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that Covid-19 could cause a pandemic. 

“We’ve had outbreaks before,” she said. “We thought that this was going to be over in a month, maybe two months max.”

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But soon, her lab was inundated. Workers processed tests 10 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, struggling to keep up. They went through supplies like crazy — swabs, fluid to transport specimens in, you name it. By March 14, when the lab was almost out of supplies, the University of Vermont Medical Center and Middlebury College sent some of their supplies over.

In those initial two weeks, the lab couldn’t use machines to quickly and easily process samples. It had two devices that were capable — one called a QIAcube, the other a MagMAX — but regulations require labs to demonstrate that testing equipment can produce results that match tests done by hand. That process takes time. 

The first machine got rolling March 16, but the second wasn’t ready for two more weeks.

“We were literally down to, I think, 20 [test kits]” while waiting for the second machine to be approved, Matusevich said. Because of the shortage, the lab had to stop testing every sample it received and focus only on high-risk cases. 

“March 19, we were expected to be out of kits,” she said.

The intense schedule, the run on supplies, the lack of equipment, the importance of the task — all of that ate at her.

“We care about the health of the public. So when you don’t have the tools that you need to do your job, and you know you need to get this job done, it’s incredibly frustrating,” Matusevich said. “I had called the sales rep of the vendor who had the kits, and I pleaded with emails saying, ‘Look, we are going to be dead in the water if you don’t send us these kits.’ And they’re like, ‘Sorry, we can’t do it.’”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in, sending the lab just enough kits to keep tests going.

coronavirus testing lab
Valarie Devlin and Alan Finn, microbiologists at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory, test specimens for the coronavirus on March 11, 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

‘The public sees us now’

Things became smoother when extra staff and more machines arrived, but technicians were still working with hundreds of samples by hand, uncapping vials and using pipettes to add samples to trays.

By July, the stress-related injuries started to crop up.

“We were starting to feel it in our hands and in our shoulders,” Matusevich said, flexing her fingers. “But people still did their job, ‘cause, you know, that’s what we’re here for — even though they were in pain.”

And there were other rewards — in particular, appreciation.

The signs that kids made, calling the lab workers heroes, still hang in the lab. Matusevich reads those words each day as she passes by. 

“I’m glad that the public sees us now,” she said. “People know about us.”

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