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Reporter debrief: Scott admin says COVID cases are up 64% over last 2 weeks, trajectory will continue until at least December

A photo of Gov. Phil Scott standing a podium with a sign language interpreter on Scott's left
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Gov. Phil Scott's administration says Vermont's COVID case counts are up 64% in the past two weeks.

Gov. Phil Scott on Monday agreed to call Vermont lawmakers back to Montpelier for a special session next week so they can pass a bill that would give local towns the authority to issue a local mask mandate.

That news served as the backdrop for Tuesday’s administration press briefing. Officials also touched on the trajectory for COVID case counts in Vermont as well as how to prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Vermont Edition’s Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Statehouse reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the takeaways from the press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 16. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: All right, let's start with Vermont's case rates. Where are we in terms of case counts?

Peter Hirschfeld: From a numbers perspective, in a worse place than we were last week. Vermont has seen its COVID case counts rise to new highs in each of the last three weeks.

This week: no different. Cases are up 16% since last week; up 64% over the last two weeks.

More from VPR: Gov. Phil Scott agrees to special session for "narrowly crafted" and "time-limited" masking protocols

The one silver lining in that, that Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak tried to point out, was that the rate of increase in cases over the past week was lower than it was in the previous week. So, he says, you know, perhaps that's a sign that cases are not growing as quickly as they had been previously.

However, the modeling shows no relief in sight. So, we can expect cases to remain at least flat as we head into December.

Another key metric I saw today, Mikaela, was the number of cases in schools. That has enormous knock-on effects, of course, in terms of the number of students who have to quarantine. There were 256 cases in Vermont schools over the past week. That's the highest by far we've seen since the beginning of the pandemic. So, a lot of complications for school operations.

Right, and I'm sure these numbers kind of put a chill in people's hearts as we enter into the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, where there's typically a lot more travel and a lot more indoor gathering. Now we got some news you can use from Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine around the Thanksgiving holiday. What did he tell us?

Well, there are a few tips Dr. Levine wants folks to consider — testing being foremost among them.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says if you're planning to gather with people outside of your immediate household for the holiday, you should get a PCR test before that gathering. He said that in order to make sure you get the test results back before Thanksgiving proper, you're going to need to get the test administered no later than Monday.

Dr. Levine said even if that PCR test comes back negative, then you can sort of ramp up the COVID safety even more by taking a rapid antigen test immediately before your gathering.

Watch the Scott administration's Nov. 16 press conference below:

Levine also encouraged people to keep gatherings small. He didn't put a number on that, so it's tough to say with precision what he means, but he is saying keep gathering size is limited. So, take from that what you will.

And they're also asking people not to travel as much. Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said we didn't see a lot of COVID spikes after Thanksgiving and New Year's holidays last year. He said that was in large part because Vermonters didn't do a lot of traveling, and he says that the closer to home we all stay, the less likely we are to see an increase in cases as a result of holiday gatherings.

Right. And then the Department of Health also tweeted on Saturday that because of the high number of cases that the state's experiencing right now, it would only be able to conduct contact tracing for higher risk people.

That means if you test positive, you might not get a call from a contact tracer anymore, which you would have in the past. How significant is this change?

Well, you know, the significance of this change will be a function of the extent to which it impacts the effect of contact tracing on COVID mitigation, right. And I think that that's an unanswered question right now.

It does put thousands of Vermonters in the new position of having to become do-it-yourself contact tracing experts.

Dr. Levine said there are tools for all of us now at the Health Department — where we can log on to the website, find out how we're supposed to talk to people that we're calling because they are close contacts of us who have now tested positive for COVID.

There are guidelines on what we should do as individuals if we've tested positive, and what we should encourage our close contacts to do when we call them. So, a sign of these delta times, I suppose Mikaela, that from here on out, if you test positive for COVID, you are going to become a de facto contact tracer.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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