Our Opinion: Long road still ahead

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Wednesday offered a bit of happy irony in Montpelier: Gov. Phil Scott addressed the media and the public about plans to boost the state's COVID-19 testing and contract tracing strategy on the same day the state reported zero new coronavirus cases.

It was the first time since March 13 that the state had no new cases to report.

But we're not out of the woods. Not even close.

A vaccine for COVID-19 is probably a year or more away. We still aren't sure if recovering from COVID-19 results in immunity from the virus, and if so, for how long. Vermont has been relatively fortunate, but we share this country with other states that have not fared as well in health outcomes, or been as wise in their decisions.

As we carefully reopen Vermont's economy, this is no time to give in to sentimental desires for "the way things used to be" and let up our guard. The old normal is gone. Until science catches up to the virus, that means cloth masks, social distancing and testing, with plenty of caution and patience.

History teaches us why this must be so. The "second wave" of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, in the fall of 1918, was far deadlier than the first.

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Our understanding of how viruses work and our capability to fight them is light years beyond what was available in 1918. Many of the public health conditions that fueled the spread of the second wave in the fall of 1918 are no longer a concern.

Some things are just the same: In 1918, many people bristled against the social distancing that had been ordered by authorities in the pandemic's first wave. But the second wave was far worse. Communities that buckled down and stuck with social distancing, despite its unpopularity, fared better than communities where vigilance waned.

That's to be avoided at all costs, not only for the lives it will save, but for the sake of the significant sacrifices we've already made. There may come a time when we have to start social distancing all over again — that cannot be predicted — but it would be a shame if the reason for going back to the start was a foolish assumption that everything would go back to normal.

In the meantime, There's a great deal of damage to repair in state government.

While the state Department of Labor worked tirelessly to overcome its backlog of claims, there are still reports of trouble with the system, and claimants with questions not able to get through on the phone. These must be addressed, and the state must replace its antiquated computers with modern equipment. Tax revenues have plunged, leaving Gov. Scott, the Legislature and local school boards with hard choices ahead. And the resignation of Jeb Spaulding as chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System doesn't fix the financial catastrophe facing the system.

But Vermont has come this far. And we've done it together, with leadership, sacrifice, and a smidge of Yankee ingenuity.

This is no time to let up. We're all in this together, and that's how we'll finally emerge from this pandemic.


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