Dec. 4 COVID-19 dashboard
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MONTPELIER — As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase, the stress and anxiety caused by living with the pandemic, now in its 10th month, is taking a toll on Vermonters’ mental health.

State officials want residents to know help is available, and that they should make the time and effort to care for their mental health in the same way they care for their physical well-being.

Inspired by a reporter’s question about mental health last week, Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell on Friday highlighted resources available to residents who are struggling with stress and anxiety during the pandemic. They urged Vermonters to take care of themselves, and to check in on friends and family.

The website CovidSupportVT.org, offers free resources for Vermonters feeling the anxiety and stress of the pandemic, Scott and Squirrell said. Residents can also call 211 for access to information, resources and help.

“I know this has been among most stressful events most of us have had to deal with at least in my lifetime, and I see it each and every day,” Scott said. “This isn’t a 24-hour storm. It’s been so prolonged. And we don’t know when it will end.”

“If you’re feeling COVID fatigue ... not being able to get together with others, or the anxiety and pressure of losing your job or having financial problems, you’re not alone,” Scott said. “These are reasonable normal responses to a very abnormal event.”

The reason for stress is real: As of Friday, Vermont reported 73 new cases, for a total of 4,763, and 77 deaths since the pandemic began. Bennington County reported six new cases on Friday and 47 in the past 14 days. In Windham County, 10 new cases were reported Friday, and 78 in the past 14 days.

Scott urged Vermonters to follow prevention guidelines and “come together for a final push” to get through what he hopes is the pandemic’s final surge.

While Scott is optimistic that vaccine distribution is near, he remains deeply concerned about the threat of community spread. “The threat is very real, and while we’ve done better than any other state, we’re not invincible,” he said.

And if not? “Contact tracing 300 cases every day will have serious ripple effects for the people of Vermont,” he warned.

MORE TESTSIncreased COVID testing is on the way for schools, skilled nursing facilities and long-term care facilities, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith and Education Secretary Daniel French said.

Starting Monday, the following testing protocols will be put in place, Smith said:

• At assisted living and residential care facilities, staff will get PCR tests twice weekly, and rapid result antigen tests will be administered to residents or staff showing COVID symptoms.

• At skilled nursing facilities, rapid antigen tests will be provided to all staff daily and to all residents and staff when showing symptoms. All staff will get PCR tests once per week.

At present, the state has seen coronavirus outbreaks at eight long-term residential facilities, with a total of 227 cases.

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The state’s contact tracing effort is bringing on more staff, with a goal of 100 full-time equivalents by Monday, Smith said. The state is also implementing a text message notification system to provide information to contact tracing subjects.

French said the Agency of Education’s surveillance testing will continue next week with tests at districts across the state, including the Battenkill Valley and Bennington-Rutland supervisory unions.

CHRONIC FATIGUE

As the Commissioner of Mental Health, Squirrell said the pandemic feels like she’s running a race, “and every 10 yards they move the finish line.”

“The acute crisis has been replaced with chronic fatigue. We’re tired of dealing with uncertainties without seeing an end in sight,” she said.

But that’s why Vermonters need to care for their mental health, Squirrell said.

She advised that Vermonters create healthy routines including exercise, spending time outdoors, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep. She said parents should talk to their children about their concerns, and reach out to pediatricians or school counselors if needed.

For young people, “Let your parents and caregivers know how you’re feeling,” she said. “They can better help you if they know what you’re experiencing.”

Noting the increase in opioid related deaths, Squirrel said there’s a greater risk during the pandemic of people using while alone and dying from an accidental overdose. “If you know someone in recovery, please reach out to them to see how they are doing during this very stressful and isolating time,” she said. “And please avoid using alone if possible.”

People in that situation should connect to a trusted person by phone or text, or call Never Use Alone at 800-484-3731, she said.

Scott said a call, text or video chat can make a big difference to someone who is dealing with stress or depression.

“If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, or substance misuse, or anything else, you should reach out,” Scott said. “There is no shame in seeking help, no matter how serious or insignificant you think it might be.”

While Vermont data continues to show a lower number of suicides in 2020, “we know that Vermonters are struggling,” Squirrell said. “The main message is that suicide is preventable. Research shows that intervention makes a difference.”

“To control the virus, it’s all about testing and tracing. And for mental health and suicide prevention, it’s all about outreach and screening,” Squirrell said. “Remember that asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not put the idea in their head. Instead, asking questions actually opens up the door for a caring conversation about how someone might be hurting, and about how you can help.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.