MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott defended new restrictions announced last week on nonessential travel and multihousehold gatherings, and the closure of bars and clubs. He said from Oct. 1 to Nov. 13, about 71 percent of outbreaks in Vermont were linked to social events, parties, bars or clubs.
“We’re just not seeing these outbreaks linked to people dining out at restaurants or working out at gyms,” he said Tuesday at his twice weekly news conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “This tells us the protocols at these businesses are, for the most part, working.”
Scott cited data from contact tracing, saying an uptick in cases mostly involved adults from multiple households getting together with friends inside and outside. He said the gatherings usually involved food and drink with little or no masking.
Last week, the state suspended use of its leisure travel map, which showed where out-of-state visitors could come from without a quarantine or Vermonters could go without requiring a quarantine upon return. Nonessential travel to or from outside counties now require a 14-day quarantine or 7 days of quarantine followed by a negative COVID-19 test.
“I know this is incredibly difficult and frustrating especially with holidays around the corner but it’s necessary and we need Vermonters’ help to get this back under control,” Scott said. “In the environment we’re in, we need to prioritize need over want. In my view, in-person education, protecting our health care system and keeping people working as long as we can do it safely are things that we need.”
Skeptics of the precautionary measures are correct in saying they can do what they want, Scott said, “but please don’t call it patriotic. Don’t pretend it’s about freedom. Because real patriots sacrifice and serve for all, whether they agree with them or not. Patriots also stand up and fight when our nation’s health and security is threatened. And right now, our country and way of life is being attacked by the virus, not the protections we put in place.”
Scott said more clarity on gathering restrictions will be coming at the end of the week. He also announced testing and contact tracing capacity would be increased, including 14 new testing sites open 24 hours a day seven days a week with one in Brattleboro.
The goal is to get back to pre-spike levels before easing up on the restrictions.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, said Vermont reported 600 cases this week. He called it the highest number seen since the start of the pandemic.
Cases started to grow substantially 10 to 14 days following Halloween, Pieciak said.
“We’re seeing this across the country,” he said, “and they’re calling it the Halloween surge.”
Pieciak anticipates the emergence of cases will slow down with the new interventions in place. He noted the U.S. just added 1 million new cases within six days, breaking last week’s record where the same figure came within 10 days.
Vermont has now reported about 3,000 cases altogether. Pieciak said it had taken about 88 days for the state to reach the first 1,000 then 142 for the next 1,000, but the latest came in “a mere 23 days.”
“You can clearly see why the governor’s mitigation strategies were a necessary step last Friday,” he said.
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, announced hospital visitation policies relaxed in August were restricted again yesterday. Exceptions are made for pediatric patients and those needing support with communication, cognitive and accessibility needs.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said teams from the Department of Health are monitoring or investigating more than 156 situations.
“We have called special attention to Orange and Washington counties in a press release yesterday,” he said. “Those counties account for nearly 40 percent of the COVID cases in the state for the past two weeks.”
The department is working with local and elected officials in the two counties “to step up efforts and make sure Vermonters are following our health guidance because each new case means the potential for further spread, which can lead to outbreaks,” Levine said. Acknowledging the difficulty of giving up gatherings, he described the step as necessary in cutting down on chances for transmission.
Scott said he’ll be holding off on an inauguration party until it is appropriate. He was reelected earlier this month.