A week after first announcing a new executive order banning social gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott clarified that the restrictions do allow people feeling unsafe in their household to leave and take shelter elsewhere, and that people can take a physically-distanced walk with one other person from a different household.
"I cannot emphasize this enough: We need people to limit their contacts with others," Scott said during his twice-weekly briefing on Friday. "This virus is so crafty and spreads so fast, and the consequences are severe. Maybe not for you or your household, but for others."
The governor made a note that four people have died after contracting COVID-19 in the past two weeks, bringing the total to 62 deaths in Vermont since the pandemic began. New coroanvirus cases have also surged this week, with the state reporting more than 500 new infections since Monday, including 146 on Friday.
While Scott said Vermonters should continue avoiding out-of-state travel and gathering socially with other households, he noted he wanted to "clear things up" with the executive order he issued last week.
- Leave an unsafe environment in their own household and take shelter in another.
- Take an outside walk, bike or hike with one other person from another household, while keeping distance and wearing masks. But no more than two people from two different households can do this.
- If living alone, can gather with immediate family members in one other household.
Vermonters still CANNOT:
- Attend private or public gatherings with other households, inside or outside, including for Thanksgiving.
- Participate in recreational sports leagues, which have been suspended. School sports are governed under different guidance.
The other parts of the governor's executive order remain in place, including the closure of bars to in-person service, the mandate that restaurants close for in-person service at 10 p.m., the expectation that people will work from home whenever possible, and the compulsion for people to comply with contract tracers.
The current cases are the result of exposures to the virus that took place before last Friday's order, so it's still too early to know if the latest round of restrictions are slowing the spead of the virus, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
"And it may take many weeks yet — cases will peak before they can come down," he said. "But with a little patience and a lot of compliance, I'm hopeful we can make a real difference."
Public health officials in Vermont — and around the country — are especially concerned about people gathering next week for Thanksgiving. On Thursday, a week before the holiday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance urging people not to travel and only celebrate with people in their immediate household.
Levine, who's asked Vermonters to do the same, acknowledged people might feel pressure from others to break public health rules. He said the Health Department has advice for people who need to have the "COVID talk" with friends and family.
"It's OK to be clear and straight-forward, to decline invitations or leave situations that feel too risky," he said. "You should never have to feel bad or apologize for prioritzing your safety."
Vermont's seven-day positivity rate is also now at 2%, but Levine said that's still better than other areas of the United States.
"States like New Jersey are now will in the 6 to 10% range," Levine said. "Some states in the Midwest are 10 to 20%. South Dakota is close to 50%."
Levine also said there's good news on the horizon in terms of a COVID-19 vaccine. On Friday, Pfizer filed an application with U.S regulators for emergency authorization for its vaccine, which appears to be 95% effective against the coronavirus.
Levine said that if everything stays on track, Vermont could get its first doses of the Pfizer vaccine by Dec. 10 — though the exact amount is still unknown.
Levine said that the first people to get the shot would be high-risk health care workers, followed by older Vermonters "who generally will be exceeding the age of 65 and will be having some element of chronic co-morbid diseases."
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at extremely cold temperatures, which has raised concerns that some states might not have the right facilities to store it. But Levine said Vermont has adequate freezer space to store the vaccine.
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