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Officials urge continued social distancing as peak approaches

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MONTPELIER — While reminding Vermonters that the peak in cases is yet to come, state officials on Monday emphasized cautious optimism and continued vigilance in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has spread rapidly around the world since it was first identified in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. As of Monday afternoon, Vermont reported 543 cases of COVID-19 and 23 deaths, with 25 cases in Bennington County and 35 in Windham County, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

Vermont is heading toward a peak in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference Monday.

"As we head into the next few weeks, we need to be prepared for things to get worse before they get better," he said.

Staying home is more important than ever, because if Vermonters don't continue to do so, the healthcare system will be overwhelmed and more people will die, Scott said.

"Increased cases, and sadly, the deaths, are a tragic reminder of what's at stake, of why we're taking these drastic steps to protect our family, friends and neighbors," he said. "I've seen more and more Vermonters taking this seriously. Staying home is literally saving lives. This is critical to keep everyone safe."

Vermont is seeing approximately 10-12 percent of all COVID-19 tests conducted coming back positive across the state, said Dr. Mark Levine, health commissioner, at the press conference.

"I'm not here to compare us to other states but you should recognize that a 10 percent, 12 percent rate means we're doing pretty well," he said.

States like Florida, New York and New Jersey are seeing much higher percentages of positive tests, he said.

All models the state is using show "peak activity" of COVID-19 occurring later this month, "perhaps as early as this week," Levine said.

"But [the models] all show that the social distancing mitigation strategies are working here, and we know that that's incredibly difficult and challenging," he said. "But I do need you to understand that the sacrifices you're making are actually helping."

Most recent modeling suggests that the measures Vermont is taking, when it's all over, "could potentially save 1,700 lives," Levine said.

MASKS

Levine also discussed guidance that Vermonters wear masks when out in public to prevent COVID-19's spread, as pre-symptomatic spread of the disease is possible.

A "significant portion" of people with COVID-19 are also asymptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Levine characterized wearing masks as a common-sense measure.

"Do we need to wear a mask if we're alone in the woods with our dog and no one else is around? No," he said.

But in the grocery store, walking in a crowded neighborhood or picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy? Yes, he said.

Written guidance in a daily update from the Vermont Department of Health, issued Monday, states that Vermonters should wear cloth facial masks or coverings "if they need to leave their homes for essential purposes, like going grocery shopping or to the pharmacy, or outdoors if other people are nearby."

This is similar to recent guidance from the CDC, which is now recommending that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain — like grocery stores and pharmacies — especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

Levine has stressed that "medical-grade" masks, like N95 masks, must still be reserved for health care workers.

And, he previously said, social distancing is still the most effective way to slow the spread of the disease, and is showing early positive results.

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Scott has issued multiple social distancing requirements since declaring a state of emergency in regard to COVID-19 on March 13. Scott issued a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order on March 24 that directed nonessential businesses and nonprofits to stop in-person operations and residents to leave home only for essential reasons, and on March 26, he also directed schools to cease in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year.

At Monday's press conference, Scott said he anticipates extending the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order sometime later this week.

Social distancing needs to be maintained until the state hits its peak in cases — then, officials will "open the spigot" in incremental steps to manage the way out of this situation, Scott said.

"To make sure that we don't have any more flare-ups," he said. "That we don't have a sudden rise. Then we'll be able to determine how we open the spigot to put people back to work. We want to keep Vermonters safe first."

LONG-TERM CARE

Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist, also detailed the state's efforts regarding long-term care and assisted living facilities at Monday's press conference.

The state has been reaching out to these facilities to conduct infection prevention and control assessments, she said.

The assessments address "a number" of areas, including monitoring and screening of healthcare personnel, monitoring and screening of residents, ensuring availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensuring adherence to infection control practices, she said.

Officials have been reaching out to every such facility in Vermont, and as of Sunday, these assessments have been conducted in 25 long-term care and four assisted living facilities, with 14 assessments scheduled, she said.

Officials continue to conduct outreach to the remaining nine long-term care and assisted living facilities without completed or scheduled assessments, she said.

Outreach also identified 10 facilities that were running short on PPE, and teams "immediately" delivered the necessary equipment, Kelso said.

When asked if the state has seen an uptick in domestic violence with stay home measures in place, Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said they haven't seen an uptick in domestic violence yet — but they're concerned about it.

Michael Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said officials are monitoring domestic and child abuse, and said the state has not "pulled back" in any of its systems to investigate these things.

SUPPLIES

Statistics released Sunday showed that in a worst-case scenario, Vermont will run out of supplies of some types of PPE such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves and body protection between April 14 and May 5. But under what are now considered the best and most likely cases, the state's supply of that equipment will be enough to cope with the demand, the Associated Press has reported.

Vermont is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 600 ventilators. No deliveries have occurred or been promised.

FEMA has asked states to advise when they see a 72-hour critical need that will outstrip state capacity. Vermont planners are monitoring for that period, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, the state is in the process of buying 452 ventilators from eight separate suppliers. About 50 have begun arriving or are in transit, according to the AP.

Scott said at Monday's press conference that the state is maintaining its inventory of PPE, and "we feel comfortable with what we have."

If Vermont gets to the point where there's an excess of supplies, then "obviously, we'll be giving it to [other states]," Scott said in response to a question.

At least a couple of companies in Vermont are also working on a ventilator that could go into production "very soon," and they're willing to share that with other states and entities, Scott said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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