Health Commissioner 'Optimistic' As COVID Cases Rise, Vermonters Adapt To Holiday Restrictions
Thanksgiving is one week away, and Vermonters are being urged to adjust their plans, after a recent surge in coronavirus cases led to new public health restrictions being imposed to tamp down on the troubling trend. VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine about where Vermont's coronanvirus response is now, and how Vermonters should adjust their holiday plans amid new pandemic restrictions. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: We heard this past spring about “flattening the curve.” When all this started, Vermonters responded pretty well, and we had a relatively good summer. We are seeing such a surge now. Where are we compared with the spring? Same level, worse? How optimistic or pessimistic are you?
Dr. Mark Levine: We're having more cases than we did in the spring. So, by that definition, it's a different situation. But it's different in the number of cases; that doesn't mean it's different in the way we can respond to it.
In the spring, the real response of most of the country was to shut down and start closing things, and getting into what we eventually called "stay home, stay safe.” Right now, there's really no need for that kind of extreme posturing because we can do very targeted interventions.
We have adequate and even super-adequate access to testing. We have contact tracing. Both of those give us the ability to contain virus where we see it. We also have [personal protective equipment. So those are all, I think, major differences now, compared to then.
I heard you and Gov. Phil Scott talking about targeting specific single-digit small groups. We're talking about things like dinner parties, baby showers, even hunting camps, with these latest restrictions. Why target these small social gatherings now? What data are you basing that on?
We're basing that on outbreak data [which shows] 60-70% [of new cases] emanate from some kind of a social gathering. We also have the data that Commissioner Pieciak revealed, which showed the 10-to-14 days that have evolved after Halloween. And Halloween was a major, major fueler to the fire, if you will. And then, if you add into that the slides we showed a week ago regarding the Canadian Thanksgiving [in October], they had dramatic upticks in their caseload. You could see the data very clearly, chronologically, because we always look 10-to-14 days after an event, because that's the way the virus starts to work.
There were comments made by Gov. Phil Scott, saying things like, “Don't even go out with your friend for a walk outside.” And people were saying, wait a second, that seems really counterintuitive, because you're saying that, but at the same time, restaurants are still open. How can it be safer, let's say, to go to a restaurant indoors, with people you don't know, where masks will be off for part of the meal, as opposed to taking a walk outside, perhaps keeping six feet apart, with a friend that you do know, who has a mask on?
When it comes to walking outside, there's going to be some further guidance provided to Vermonters this week, which I think will clarify that situation immensely.
Dr. Levine, I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I do have you on the line now. For people that maybe can't tune in to that Friday press conference, I really want to get your take on this, and just sort of specifically answer that question. Why would it not be safe to do what I just described?
I think we recognize that the guidance we have currently on outdoor, recreational and fitness activity, that still is allowed. There's nothing in the new executive order that challenges that. But we have to be able to let the governor's team make sure, because this is written into a legal document, that the way that it’s framed is clear for everybody to understand. And that's what I can't get out in front of at this point in time, because it's being done as we speak.
With regard to the restaurants, people need to understand that the prohibition on multi-family, multi-household gatherings, both indoors and outdoors in public and private spaces, that holds for restaurants, too. You will sit as a family, but not as multiple families. And that's because the data we have in Vermont, which is slightly different than some other states, doesn't support restaurants as being a major vehicle for the transmission of virus in the cases that we're aware of in our state. And we have such very specific guidance to the restaurant industry, which they've been wonderful in adhering to, that protects Vermonters.
So, if I have a big Thanksgiving meal with my immediate family and, you know, I'm feeling I want to take a walk after that, my friend down the block says, 'Hey, you want to go on the bike path?' We're going to keep six-feet-apart from each other. We'll keep our masks on. Let's take a walk. We'll talk in that intervening time: yes or no?
Yeah, we want to encourage people to be outside and do just what you're saying. We do not want to encourage you to have a gathering outside with multiple people. That's the key difference here.
Thank you for clarifying that. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I do want to ask this question. Can Vermont handle a worst-case scenario and what would that be? What would a tipping point be?
The short answer is: yes. I'm actually on the optimistic side of things, because I see the success Vermonters had on the first go-around. I do see Vermonters able to rally, and comply with the new guidance, and do the same thing they did way back when. Especially when you pair that with the emphasis on travel, making sure that any travel, no matter who's coming in, or what Vermonter is leaving and coming back, is accompanied by a real quarantine period. Because that's critical.
But to be clear here, the message that I believe you've been sending – you and the governor – is do not travel out-of-state for Thanksgiving. It's going to be disappointing for friends and family, but don't go. And, I'm assuming that means don't have people come visit here as well?
Absolutely. And I'm glad you said that, because that is our message. But we also know the reality is that there are some people that are going to have to travel, for whatever reason. And just to make sure that they understand: this is a mandatory quarantine. And certainly, our lodging operators understand that [that is the case] for people who are coming into the state from elsewhere.
Dr. Levine, do you mind if I ask how you're spending your Thanksgiving this year? Are their friends or family you're not able to see?
Many! My two children do live out of state. They are not traveling here, and we are not traveling to them. Before we had our recent surge, we had connected with a few friends. We thought we would all sit on our deck, no matter what the temperature, and enjoy Thanksgiving. But those plans have now been canceled. So it'll be myself and my wife.
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