MONTPELIER — The state is now recommending that Vermonters wear face masks when out in public, in light of the fact that infected people can spread the new coronavirus before they show symptoms.
Though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended that those who are not ill wear masks in public, that advice is evolving quickly, Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont's health commissioner, said at a press conference on Friday.
"I am joining other health leaders in recommending Vermonters wear cloth face masks in public, even if they have no symptoms," he said.
As pre-symptomatic spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is possible, wearing a face mask may prevent people from spreading the virus, Levine said.
"I fully expect that CDC will be making the same recommendation," he said.
Levine stressed that "medical-grade" masks, like N95 masks, must still be reserved for health care workers.
And, he said, social distancing is still the most effective way to slow the spread of the disease, and is showing early positive results.
"We must keep up this good work a little while longer," he said. "So that in the future, we can get together again in health and safety."
Vermont's total cases of COVID-19 have risen by 51 just since Thursday, to 389, Levine said. Nineteen of those cases are in Bennington County and 21 in Windham County. As of Friday afternoon, the number of deaths had not increased from Thursday's total of 17.
"We're going to see ups and downs," Gov. Phil Scott said. "We're going to see outbreaks. We can't take our foot off the gas. Social distancing, washing your hands, continue to be the most effective tools we have to reduce the spread, and make sure we don't overwhelm our hospitals."
He added that wearing masks is not a substitute for social distancing.
"We thought a lot about this over the last week or so," Scott said of mask-wearing. "We don't want anyone to be given the impression that this will protect them from contracting this virus. But it could in an altruistic way provide relief for someone else, from you spreading it."
When asked about specific types of masks Vermonters should be wearing, Levine said, "I guess it's really the term facial covering, rather than mask."
Cloth materials can be used in lieu of medical-grade masks, and as time evolves, officials will find out how they can determine what's most effective, he said.
"I have to be a bit vague," he said. "But that's where we're at."
Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said the state currently has about 59,000 face protection units in stock, but if people begin congregating and not paying attention to social distancing guidance, "we will be at risk of out-stripping our supply."
Scott also said at Friday's press conference that Vermonters can still get outside and enjoy fresh air, even with social distancing guidelines in place. This can help manage the stress and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 situation, he said.
Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore outlined guidance for Vermonters to safely practice outdoor recreation, as "gorgeous" spring weather is predicted for Saturday.
"It's never been more important for Vermonters to get outside, but also to stay close to home," she said. "Now is not the time to explore far-flung corners of Vermont, but rather to focus on backyard adventures."
Vermonters should choose outdoor sites that they can walk or bike to, and if they must drive, they should limit their trip to 10 miles, she said.
Also, Vermonters should observe social distancing guidelines when outdoors. If you see a crowded trailhead, she said, take that as a sign — and leave. "Turn around and choose an alternative that's not as crowded," she said.
It's also important to avoid engaging in high-risk activities that could cause injury, she said, as every accident that requires medical attention takes healthcare workers away from the front lines of dealing with COVID-19.
"As the weather warms, the pull to be outside for many of us, including myself, will be incredibly strong," she said. "With a bit of consideration and planning, we can keep nature close."
At a previous press conference Thursday, Levine described how the deceleration period of COVID-19 cases could last at worst case a month, or maybe three months in the "intermediate" case.
Everyone agrees there would be a rebound after that, where mitigation measures would once more have to be imposed — but hopefully on a faster, shorter timeline, he said.
When asked Friday how Vermont will keep its economy going in the event social distancing measures would need to be re-implemented, Scott said, "so much is going to be dependent on what happens on a national level, and certainly worldwide."
"Because this is so new that we don't have a playbook," he said. "So we don't know what to expect, and for us to say that once this wave is over that we'll go back to normal will be disingenuous."
Officials will have to monitor this issue long-term, he said.
"We may be in for a bit of a bumpy road over the next year or two," he said.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.