MONTPELIER — With COVID-19 cases on the rise in the region and, to a lesser extent, in Vermont, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott is urging Vermonters to be careful with travel and hosting family visitors this holiday season — and to consider forgoing them altogether.
Scott, Education Secretary Daniel French and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, appearing at the state’s twice-weekly COVID-19 briefing on Friday, all underscored the importance of minimizing the spread of the virus so that schools can remain open for in-person learning. In-person instruction for the state’s children is too important to risk a backward slide to full remote learning for the state, they said.
Levine and Scott also issued an advisory on social gatherings, strongly recommending they be limited to 10 or fewer people, and urged Vermonters to get vaccinated for the flu.
“Our plans and choices will have an impact on the health and lives of our families and communities,” Levine said. “I am strongly urging people to lay low this season and forgo non-essential travel.”
Levine pointed out that cases in Vermont are gradually growing, with 35 new cases reported Thursday — the most in a single day since June — and 24 cases reported on Friday. That, coupled with the return of lockdowns in Europe and explosive growth of new cases in the U.S, with more than 100,000 new cases on Wednesday and Thursday, led Levine to assert that the world is entering a new phase of the pandemic.
“We can’t control the nature of the virus. Its time for us to focus on the things we can control,” Levine said.
With that in mind, Levine said, Vermonters should limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer, from a small circle of trusted family and friends. Those who are traveling, or hosting guests, should have candid conversations with everyone they plan to spend time with about their COVID-19 prevention habits. And those who travel should be tested when they return.
“As you plan your holidays, to have an open conversation about safety, let your friends and family know that we need to feel comfortable so you can see them and keep everyone’s risk low and consider getting tested before and after any gathering,” Levine said.
Vermont currently has three COVID-19 patients in hospitals, with two in intensive care, according to the Health Department’s data dashboard. But the state remains steady at 58 deaths from the coronavirus, and none since July.
French noted the Holiday Travel Toolkit for Schools published by the Department of Health as a guideline for families deciding holiday plans. But he is recommending that families not travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Basically, you need to consider whether your trip or gathering is worth the risk to you and your family,” French said. “And before you attend or gather make sure everyone has the same understanding of what precautions will be necessary.”
French is not automatically resigned to returning to remote-only school following the Thanksgiving break. “Quite simply I feel taking such action would not be in the best interest of our students,” he said. “We should endeavor to keep in-person instruction as best we can.”
French and Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatrician at the University of Vermont Medical Center and state chapter president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasized the benefits of even limited in-person instruction.
Bell said the schools have “created a feeling of safety” for students, and that children feel protected from COVID-19 while there.
“Teachers are really showing up for kids. They’ve given up a level of normalcy in their own lives to keep kids safe. And students know that,” Bell said.
With regard to protecting the state as COVID-19 cases rise nationally and regionally, Scott was asked if he’d be willing to bring back in-person surveillance of state line crossings during the holiday season.
“We’re considering doing what ever we can to make sure we communicate directly with those coming into the state.... That’s our weakest link in some respects,” Scott said.
Scott is concerned about the rise of coronavirus cases in states outside Vermont that send travelers here. Additional discussions are set for Tuesday, he said.
If the state’s data modeling continues to show a trend of rising cases, “we’ll be implementing whatever policies we need to, to try to provide for that communication to those visitors coming into the state,” Scott said.