Vermont Officials 'Cautious' But Say State Is Likely At COVID-19 Peak
Vermont officials are "cautious" but say they think the state is currently in its peak for COVID-19 cases.
“The most recent modeling study showed this week would actually be our peak," Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference Wednesday. “I’m going to be very cautious as I say this, but cautiously say that perhaps we are in that peak zone.”
He added that Vermont appears to be "on the side of the best-case scenario," though he would wait to say that more definitively after the next few days.
“I’d like to see the rest of this week go by," Levine said.
He did say there is "clearly a tendency towards plateauing," with 5% or less of COVID-19 tests returning positive, down from about 10% just a week ago. The Vermont Health Department reported of the 496 new tests recorded Tuesday, seven came back positive.
There has also been one new death.
"Unfortunately we still have to endure the tragedy of death," Levine said. He added, however, that compared to other states where the number of coronavirus-related deaths has at some points doubled every two to seven days, as tracked by the New York Times, Vermont's doubling rate is at about two weeks.
"On the curve, that's barely registering," Levine said. "Though these are all very important and tragic and significant events — I don't want to diminish them by any means — as an indicator of how we're doing in the epidemic, we're doing very well."
The health commissioner added that given the lower number of infections in Vermont's population, that means there will be a lot of people who haven't had experience with the virus when the peak period has passed.
"One of the major thrusts of our energies will still have to be protecting Vermonters from getting infected prior to the time we have effective treatments for the virus or even more optistically, an effective vaccine for the virus," Levine said. "So as we look into the future, we are going to definitely need to have very robust data on spread, rate of exposure. Hopefully serology testing will prove to be a way of understanding who may be immune and who may not be. But it won’t be an end to social distancing, it won’t be an end to limitations on large gatherings, [and] it won’t be an end, perhaps, to facial coverings."
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the state would not be opening up a new surge site at Goddard College for COVID-19-positive people experiencing homelessness or unable to return to their homes. Smith said the state will instead rely on a 150-bed site at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington. He added other surge sites elsewhere in the state will remain open for the time being.
"We'll close the medical surge sites when we have reason to believe that we are truly on the downturn of this virus," he said.
Gov. Phil Scott invited three non-government guests to Wednesday's press conference to discuss ways the state has been working with local businesses and institutions as "critical teammates" in carrying out Vermont's COVID-19 response.
Burton owner Donna Carpenter explained how the snowboard company has worked with partners in China to 3D-print half a million N-95 masks for health care workers in Vermont, as well as New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and how the prototype approval went down:
"My lead product manager on this was meeting with the governor's chief of staff, handing off samples in the Waterbury Park & Ride," she said. "Once we got the OK from the state on the quality, we locked in the order and went into full production."
University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella enumerated all the various ways the school has responded to the coronavirus crisis, including the surge site in Patrick Gym, the Davis Center kitchen making meals for surge site staff, the Larner College of Medicine preparing 4,000 test kits and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences graduating its senior class several weeks early.
And Martti Matheson of JV Air shared how his company was contacted by fellow pilot and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling on March 29 for help in transporting more than 4,000 test samples from the UVM lab to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
"Now, you ask a pilot if he can get out of his house with his wife and kids for a day to fly to Minnesota, that sounds like fun day," Matheson said. "We put in 11 straight days, 22,000 miles."
He added, "We're ready to stand by and do it again if needed."
Partnering with other states
After learning about the group at Monday's press conference, the governor said he has been in touch with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office about joining a northeast regional coronavirus task force.
"What New York is trying to formalize is just talking with other states, making sure there's not a ripple-effect of some action they might take," Scott said. He added he's already been doing this informally with the state governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine.
"I think a lot of people just thought states would work together and come out with this with one big plan and implement it, and it would be the same throughout the region, and that's just not the case," Scott said.
The governor said his administration continues to try and streamline the unemployment claims process, adding he accepted "responsibility" for the issues there.
"This is an area that we didn't forsee," Scott said. He added if things don't improve over the next two or three days, his administration would need to get "creative."
Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said his department has been in contact with third-party vendors, and he also said two dozen more people have been hired to process claims, in addition to the 30 extra employees who have already been brought in to help.
He added that after going through training, the new staff should be able to help starting Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.
"Our biggest concern, obviously, is the people who have applied in the past and have not received checks to date, or received maybe one check and then stopped receiving checks," Harrington said. "So we're trying to work oldest to newest."
He said the Labor Department would know later Wednesday whether the mainframe system could be re-coded to allow self-service for unemployment claims.
Harrington also said self-employed Vermonters should soon have a way to file unemployment claims, too.
“Within the next day or two, we are working through the final steps for verifying wages and verifying identity," he said. "We’re just working out some final details so we can start accepting and opening claims.”
The governor said his staff is currently working on a plan with Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts to allow farmers to continue selling products, though perhaps without the physical market.
"If we can do this safely, we want people to understand they can still sell their goods," Scott said. "In the next week or two we want to make sure we get back to some sense of normal."
He added that plan will be announced Friday.