Vermont officials said they are so desperate to find medical professionals to help with the state’s COVID-19 response, they're even willing to use veterinarians to help with care for people.

Vermont is in the process of preparing almost 1,000 hospital beds in “medical surge facilities” statewide to help relieve pressure on existing hospitals when the COVID-19 peak arrives, which is currently expected later this month.

While officials are capable of setting up the extra beds, they don’t know who will staff them, so they are asking for help from a Medical Reserve Corps of retirees, students and others with some sort of medical experience, including veterinarians. They posted a volunteer sign-up location online.

“We need to build our reserves,” Gov. Phil Scott said Friday.

On Thursday, acting Human Services Secretary Michael Smith said officials are looking at anything that could possibly help.

“Certainly, veterinarians have extensive medical experience in terms of they’ve gone to school and what they’ve done,” Smith said.

Erin Forbes, a small animal veterinarian in Essex Junction and the spokeswoman for the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, said part of their oaths as veterinarians was to protect the public and she felt some of Vermont's vets would probably be willing to help.

“We are good at dealing with stress,” said Forbes, who worked as an emergency medical technician and would be willing to help out in the COVID-19 fight if needed. “I think it’s very intriguing and I think that if people are going to die and we can save their lives, I think most people probably wouldn’t care" that they're being treated by a veterinarian, she said.

Dr. Tim Lahey, an infectious disease specialist and medical ethicist at the University of Vermont Medical Center who is helping the hospital confront the COVID-19 epidemic, said the medical community is being creative in looking for ways to confront the outbreak by finding people who can support the front-line medical professionals. He seemed skeptical that veterinarians could provide patient care to humans.

“They have some incredible skills we could use, but we want to make sure that anybody who is putting their hands on a person... is trained to do that work,” Lahey said.

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MASKS

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Friday he is now recommending that Vermonters wear cloth face masks in public, even if they have no symptoms of COVID-19. It was previously thought that masks weren't needed for healthy people, but that has changed as it has become clear that some people infected with COVID-19 can spread it before they show symptoms.

“Wearing a face mask may help (keep) people from spreading the virus,” Levine said.

But the most effective tool to fight COVID-19 is social distancing, he said.

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NUMBERS

As of Friday, Vermont reported almost 400 positive cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths. Almost 30 patients were being treated in the state’s hospitals.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.