After ordering the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and child care centers earlier this week, Gov. Phil Scott told Vermonters Wednesday that their individual behavior will continue to play a decisive role in how pervasively the coronavirus spreads in Vermont.
"There's no doubt these are difficult and uncertain times," Scott said at a Montpelier press conference. "Even though most of us will have mild to moderate symptoms if we get it, we can all transmit it, so we all have a role to play in making sure we don’t pass it on those at higher risk. This is literally in our hands. We need everyone to accept this reality and be a part of this effort."
The governor and his health commissioner pleaded with residents to follow restrictions put in place, to practice social distancing and to help each other. He repeatedly invoked Vermont's response to the devastation of 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.
"We made it through [Irene] and we will do it again because we are Vermont strong," Scott said. "In times like this, Vermonters rise to the occasion. We help our neighbors. We answer the call of duty. And we get creative to solve big problems."
During the hourlong press conference, Scott and several cabinet members provided updates on the Vermont's response to the spread of COVID-19. The state has 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 out of roughly 600 people tested, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine. The patients with confirmed cases are located in about half of Vermont's counties.
"It's not like any corner of the state is exempt," Levine said. He later called coronavirus "a very manageable epidemic," but acknowledged efforts are now focused on slowing, and not stopping, community transmission.
Child care for "essential" workers
Wednesday is the first day all state schools are shuttered, and the education workforce now pivots to developing distancing learning and figuring out how to deliver food and other services to needy children.
Vermont schools also face a new gubernatorial directive: Scott has ordered districts to provide onsite child care for the kids of all "essential" employees in Vermont, such as health care workers, first responders and members of the Vermont National Guard.
Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling said that list of essential workers will soon include employees of grocery stores and others who work in the food-supply chain.
Secretary of Education Dan French said teachers in many cases are still reporting to work to provide those child care services.
“I think we’ve seen some really creative responses and really positive support of teachers stepping up to help assist in this moment of emergency," French said. "So it’s going to be challenging, but just one in a series of challenges that we’re going to have to navigate."
Scott announced he was enlisting two veteran state operatives to help school districts navigate those challenges: Liz Miller, chief of staff for former Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Neal Lunderville, who oversaw the state's response to Tropical Storm Irene. Lunderville served as secretary of administration for former Gov. Jim Douglas after starting with the Agency of Education.
Vermont childcare centers have also been ordered to close, except those that can provide care for essential workers. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said that so far, 41 childcare facilities have been contacted. He said those facilities alone provide care to 288 children of people now considered “essential workers.”
"We are seeing the childcare community really stepping up to this, and many centers have told us they're willing to work extra shifts," Smith said.
More testing on the way
Levine said Vermont is on the verge of seeing a substantial increase in its COVID-19 testing capacity. He said federal officials anticipate that private sector companies nationally will soon be able to process samples mailed out by hospitals and health care facilities in Vermont.
“Vermont is no different than any other state in the country with regards to not being able to do what I would call 'expansive health surveillance,' knowing in the entire population how much disease is present,” Levine said. “I think as a country, you’re going to find in the next week or two we are all going to catch up rather rapidly.”
While test results conducted in Vermont are generally returned within 24 hours, Levine said results from out-of-state testing labs will likely have a 72- to 96-hour wait time. But he said the state will continue to conduct high-priority testing in-state.
As concerns mount about the number of hospital beds and ventilators in the country, Smith said Vermont has 273 hospital beds and 245 ventilators, and is "modeling" whether it will be enough. Smith indicated the state was also drawing up plans for temporary "surge" capacity, including the possible use of the Vermont National Guard.
Scott said there is no doubt of widespread economic pain in the months to come.
"It's just a question of the magnitude," Scott said.
The governor said he has been in contact with all three members of Vermont's Congressional delegation, including a phone call with Sen. Bernie Sanders yesterday afternoon, about the federal economic response. In previous public remarks, Scott had mentioned being in contact with Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, but not Sanders.
Commissioner of Labor Michael Harrington said financial relief is en route for some Vermont workers affected by COVID-19. Existing law prohibits workers from receiving unemployment insurance to provide at-home care for a family member, but Harrington said he’s working with lawmakers on legislation that would make unemployment benefits available to anyone who has to leave work for an extended period of time to deal with a case of COVID-19 in their family.
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said his agency is closely monitoring Vermont prisons to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t take hold in correctional facilities.
But while incoming inmates are screened for symptoms of the disease, he said they aren’t being tested if they don’t show any.
“We have contingency plans that have been put in place in case we do have an illness within our facility,” Smith said.
Border closure, concerns
The governor indicated Wednesday morning he had no advance notice of an agreement between the U.S. and Canada to close the border to "non-essential" travel. The governor said he was concerned that there are Canadians who work in health care in the border region of Vermont, and he hopes they will be allowed to continue to cross the border.
"I would assume in conjunction with Canada, this is the right step to take, while understanding we have a lot of trade and rely on a number of employees from there," Scott said.