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Reporter debrief: Scott administration talks mental health during latest COVID briefing

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Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Feb. 1 on the state of the coronavirus pandemic in Vermont.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Feb. 1, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

There were signs that the Scott administration may be shifting how it wants Vermonters to think about the coronavirus.

That's according to VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel, who spoke with Vermont Edition co-host Mikaela Lefrak about some of the major takeaways from the briefing. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: Now, instead of starting the press conference with a COVID update, as he usually does, Gov. Scott instead spent some time highlighting the state's mental health crisis. And then later in the press conference, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also talked about the stresses facing adults and children in Vermont — mental health stresses in particular. So why do you think there was such a strong emphasis on mental health today?

Bob Kinzel: Well, I think it's all part of an effort to make that transition that Dr. Levine talked about — from the pandemic to the endemic. And when you're in a pandemic mode, you're dealing with things in an emergency situation, trying to patch things together as best as you can.

But as we shift towards the endemic, Dr. Levine was saying we've got to look at some of these issues — mental health issues with students, with adults. Now, these are issues that existed before the pandemic, but had been made much worse by the events of the last two years. So I think what we heard from the administration today was really quite a significant statement that they are now in the planning stages of transitioning from pandemic to endemic. Now, what does that mean? They talked about our recovery period — let's start looking at this more like the flu. I think it's a huge psychological change.

Now, Dr. Mark Levine also said that the metrics that we pay attention to in this pandemic are going to start to change:

"Our goals will continue to be focused on protecting those at highest risk of COVID worst outcomes, and ensuring the healthcare system has sufficient capacity to meet Vermonters' needs," Levine said. "We must therefore continue to pay close attention to hospitalizations. But our reliance on metrics like daily case counts and percent positivity will no longer have much value."

So less of an emphasis on daily case counts, percent positivity — more of an emphasis on things like hospitalization rates. So Bob, what did we learn about hospitalization rates? How is the state doing right now?

Well, the good news is the hospitalization rates are going down. I think the overall view from the administration today is that we have reached the peak of this surge. We're definitely coming down in terms of case counts, which are maybe less important today than they were a few months ago. But they're down 40%. In the last seven days, they're down 50%. In the last 14 days, hospitalizations are down — 10% in the last seven days. That's all very, very good news.

Watch the Scott administration's Feb. 1 press conference below, courtesy of ORCA Media:

But these numbers are still high. They're a lot higher than they were three or four months ago. And so they've got a ways to come down. So the good news is the trend is going in the right direction. Now we just need to see that continue for the next couple of weeks. You know, one thing that struck me is that right now about 105,000 Vermonters have tested positive for COVID, almost in our two-year anniversary. Now that's coming up on 20% of our population that's five years old or older. But it's really, I think, a very dramatic number. And it's the point at which the administration is beginning its transition from pandemic to endemic.

And that 20%, as you said — it doesn't include people who tested positive at home and didn't report it to the state, or children under five years old.

Now, speaking of those children, Secretary of Education Dan French addressed some questions today about the state's test at home program for schools. And in particular, there were some questions around this idea of presumptive contacts. Can you tell us exactly what he was clarifying there?

He described it as widening their net. So rather than having close contact with somebody, that may be in the same classroom, or three or four rows away from you, now it can be a little bit broader. Did you have presumptive contact with another student within a reasonable physical period? And the idea, I think, is to try to encourage more at-home testing. The state would would very much like to see more families and students use these antigen tests.

It will replace the contact tracing that they were doing, which was very time consuming and personnel intensive. So the idea is, "Let's get kids back in school." I think that the administration feels very strongly that, at this point, there are more problems keeping kids out of school than having them in School. So what can the state do to try to ease concerns about having students exposed to COVID? Well, here's one way: we could expand the whole contact program to include presumptive contacts.

And I thought it was kind of interesting. When Secretary French said the cafeteria wasn't really an area of great concern. I think that's going to raise some eyebrows because certainly I've been following what's happening at the Statehouse and lawmakers coming back. And all the health officials who have talked to legislative leaders have said the cafeteria at the Statehouse is the worst possible place, and the place that is most likely to spread infections. So we'll have to learn more about what Secretary French was thinking about.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Bob Kinzel @vprkinzel.

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