Dr. Mark Levine, 3-25-2020

Dr. Mark Levine presents to reporters during a press conference Wednesday. In front of him is a graph showing the increase in COVID-19 cases in Vermont.

MONTPELIER — The rate of coronavirus spread in Vermont is now exponential, Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s Health Commissioner, said Wednesday.

From one case two weeks ago, the state had 123 as of 11 a.m. Wednesday. The virus has claimed eight lives in Vermont.

Slowing that rate of growth is the reason Gov. Phil Scott issued a “stay at home, stay safe” order Tuesday to go into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The order instructs non-essential businesses to cease in-person operations. They can continue to conduct any business that may be done remotely by workers who are staying at home.

“It’s only been about two weeks that we’ve been involved with coronavirus at this level in Vermont and we’ve now suffered eight deaths,” Levine said. “I am very concerned about the slope of that curve and very concerned in our small state about the number of beds we have.”

Countries with most deaths also saw the number of deaths double every couple of days, he explained. New York, New Jersey and Louisiana are now seeing the same trend, said Levine. “We in Vermont want to make sure we cut this exponential growth rate.”

“This is why I view this as the perfect time for the governor’s latest mitigation strategy,” he added.

Although the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, mainly impacts the elderly and those with other health conditions, it can become a serious illness requiring hospitalization and potentially causing death in some younger people, Levine pointed out. The more Vermonters who contract the illness, the more who are at risk of death across all age groups.

The stay at home order is intended to halt the spread of virus, which is highly contagious and so successful, Levine noted, because people can be infected and spread the disease for days before showing symptoms. Some people will show no symptoms at all, but can still spread it.

By slowing the rate of the virus’s spread, state officials hope to reduce the number of people who contract the virus, saving lives and preventing the health care system from becoming overwhelmed.

“I can assure that the impact of what we’re going to do will lead to a far more favorable end result than if we did nothing at all,” Levine said.

How long these measure will need to be in place is unclear, Levine said, but all of the current modeling indicates weeks.

“It will work, but it will work best if we take an ‘it takes a village mentality,’” Levine said.

“I need you to stay home. Doing so will save lives. It’s just that simple,” said Scott.

While people can go out to pick up groceries or medications, or simply to get a bit of exercise, Scott urged them to keep their distance while doing so.

“Wash your hands a lot,” the governor said. “Err on the side of public health and stay home.”

Scott also announced that Amtrak will be ceasing operations in Vermont and neighboring states tomorrow. In addition, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) has agreed to close its trails for the season.

Asked if the state will halt evictions, Scott indicated there will be action taken on that front, but that what that action will be is still being worked out.

“If we follow these stay at home measures closely, we can get through this quicker and more safely… and then we can get our economy moving again,” Scott said. “Now is a moment of service for all of us. It’s our turn to face a once in a century challenge but I know Vermonters are up for this… We’ll get through this and we’ll do it together.”

Preparedness

Vermont currently has 575 hospital beds, 163 ventilators and 78,000 surgical masks, according to Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling.

“These numbers I gave you are not enough,” Schirling said. “We’ve got to double all the numbers I just gave you.”

Hospitals are sourcing both ventilators and personal protective gear through their own supply chains and the state is supplementing that. “We’ve bought millions of dollars of ventilators,” Schirling said, with more than 200 en route to the state.

On Tuesday, the Vermont National Guard did the initial set up on medical surge sites in Burlington, St. Albans and Barre, with a combined capacity of 200 beds. Fifty are here in St. Albans at the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center.

“We’re preparing multiple layers of surge capacity,” Schirling said. This is the first layer. Decisions about where and when to deploy the centers are being made in consultation with physicians at local hospitals.

The orderAsked about enforcement of the order, Schirling said that police will not be stopping people simply for being out and about. Officers still need to have a reasonable suspicion that someone committed a crime to stop them, he said. Simply being on the street isn’t a violation of the order.

Schirling said, however, that increased police patrols are by design.

In the next few days, his department will provide guidance to local law enforcement and municipal officials on enforcement of the governor’s order with businesses. The focus will be on educating people about the order, both Schirling and Scott said.

Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Lindsay Kurrle said her office will have additional guidance for businesses on which businesses are essential soon. She emphasized that it is only in-person operations which must cease. All businesses may continue with remote operations. Essential businesses are encouraged to do as much as they can remotely.

In addition, the agency’s website has a form businesses can fill out to request permission to continue in-person operations.

The order does not change anything for restaurants, which were limited to delivery, take-out and curbside pickup last week.

Scott said other businesses who are able to work out a way to provide curbside pickup or other delivery while keeping to the order may do so.

The federal government

Scott was asked about President Donald Trump’s comments about re-opening businesses and having full churches on Easter Sunday. “From my standpoint I think that is a bit overoptimistic to say the least,” Scott said. “We’ll let the science and the data drive our decision making and we’ll do what’s best for Vermont.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., provided an update on what Congress is doing to respond to the crisis. Two bills have been passed so far, totaling $8.3 billion and $100 billion respectively. They were focused on funding for health care and unemployment, with the second bill including additional funding for nutrition programs for children and seniors.

As he spoke, negotiations were taking place for a $2 trillion package which has since passed the Senate. While details were being negotiated, Welch said it would increase the limit for unemployment benefits by $600 per week to $1,100 and make the self-employed and independent contractors eligible for benefits.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is a lead negotiator on the package.

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