MONTPELIER — The number of Vermonters who have tested positive for COVID-19 rose to 543 as of Monday, with 23 deaths.
At the same time, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Monday that social distancing in the state may save as many as 1,700 lives.
The number of positive results in Vermont each day continues to be 10-12 percent of those tested, much lower than states with severe COVID-19 outbreaks where the percentage of positive test results is as high as 40 percent, according to Levine.
Gov. Phil Scott said Monday that he is “cautiously optimistic” Vermont has succeeded in flattening the curve, referring to the rate at which the illness spreads. Keeping the rate of spread low reduces the number of people who become ill and also reduces the strain on crucial resources from the health care system and its supplies, to first responders and volunteer-based services like food shelves and Meals on Wheels.
Under worst case scenarios, the number of Vermonters who could die from the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 was more than 4,000. But in recent days Vermont’s actual case numbers have moved away from the worst case scenario and toward the best case scenario, with fewer deaths expected as a result.
“The sacrifices you’re making are working,” said Levine. “The projections are showing we’re actually saving lives by following these strategies.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be more positive test results.
“We need to be prepared for things to get worse before they get better,” said Scott, adding that staying home was now more important than ever.
Vermont is expected to reach the peak in the number of infections some time in April or early May.
The state is now recommending that citizens where cloth masks when interacting with others, such as when shopping for groceries, going to the pharmacy, or outside in an area where other people are around. Levine suggested people outside should be prepared to wear a mask, saying that there might not be others around when you go out for a walk, but that there may be more people outside toward the end of your walk, at which point you should put your mask on.
“Wearing a mask is common sense,” said Levine.
Public health officials both locally and nationally have changed their views on ordinary citizens wearing masks as it became clear that people who have COVID-19 for up to 48 hours before showing any symptoms can still spread the disease.
As part of the governor’s press conference on Monday, state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso presented more information on the state’s contact with nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Two long-term care facilities in Chittenden County have experienced outbreaks.
Public health nurses are working with facilities to assess their preparedness and infection control measures, including:
- procedures for screening personnel for infection;
- screening of residents for infection;
- limitations placed on visitation;
- proper infection prevention practices; and
- supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In ten cases, supplies of PPE were found to be low and immediate deliveries were arranged, said Kelso.
The public health nurses’ work with the facilities is a ramping up of an existing program, Kelso explained. Because of that work, most of the facilities are in good shape she said, but many have questions about how best to deal with this virus in particular, such as when and who to test, and when to move or not move patients.
When a COVID-19 case is found in a facility, a rapid response team is dispatched. Part of their role is tracing the contacts of those who have tested positive and recommending isolation or quarantine depending on whether or not the contact is showing symptoms.
The team can also help with cohorting, or separating, staff and patients based on symptoms, risk and test results.
The Dept. of Public Service is assisting with essential services such as PPE delivery, laundry and food delivery, said Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.
One long-term care facility, Birchwood Terrace, has had 22 staff test positive for COVID-19. Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said staff from the University of Vermont Medical Center is assisting at Birchwood.
Labor commissioner Michael Harrington said the state has processed close to 17,000 payments to unemployed Vermonters and that payments are going out continuously rather than on specific days. “We’re issuing payments as quickly as possible,” he said.
However, the system is dependent on a 30-year-old mainframe. One group of payments failed to process properly last week, delaying checks for a couple of days, he explained.
The state was receiving 5,000 to 6,000 new unemployment claims filed electronically each day. That number has dropped to around 3,000, Harrington said.
He urged people to file their initial claims online at labor.vermont.gov and to use the automated phone line to file the required weekly claim in order to keep the phone lines open for those who need assistance filing their claims.
The state only just received guidance from the federal government on requirements of a new program to provide assistance to those who are self-employed and have lost income because of the pandemic. “It is a monstrous lift,” Harrington said, referring to those requirements and the challenge of setting up a new program from scratch.
Despite the challenges, Vermont hopes to have an application process available in five-to-seven days. “Our goal is get those payments out as quickly as possible,” Harrington said.
Scott added that the nine-day wait for guidance from the federal government had caused a delay. “The lack of guidance has prevented us from moving forward,” he said, adding that the state is focused on “putting money back in the hands of people who need it.”