COVID-19 Update for May 5

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It’s May – can you believe it? It was a gorgeous weekend and I know that many people were out and about, but remember, the Stay Home, Stay Safe order is still in effect. Everyone should be doing their part help prevent an increase in COVID-19 cases. Vermont is doing well, thanks to all of our efforts to wash hands, wear masks, and keep physically distant from one another. Let’s keep this going!

Enhanced Testing & Contact Tracing Programs
Last week the Commissioner of Health, Dr. Mark Levine, outlined efforts to significantly increase testing and contact tracing programs in order to quickly identify, contain, and suppress outbreaks of COVID-19 in Vermont. Dr. Levine detailed a phased-in approach that will increase weekly tests to 7,500 tests per week. The increase will take place in stages over the next month, each expanding on testing targeted populations. This will include long-term care homes and other facilities that house vulnerable populations; then populations that are key to restarting Vermont particularly all front-line healthcare workers and childcare providers; and finally populations that are currently required to undergo a 14-day quarantine such as people coming to Vermont from out-of-state. Pediatric testing has also been expanded, which will be a key component to being able to open schools, childcare facilities, and colleges. Anyone with symptoms or who has been exposed would also be tested. The state is also investing in a contact tracing program, a text-based monitoring system called SARA Alert, that will enable anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to communicate with the Department of Health about everyone whom they’ve been in contact with 14 days prior to testing positive, so those people can be contacted for testing as well. As more data is available and more sectors of the state open up, additional testing and contact tracing could be implemented. Testing remains free for everyone who needs it, so if you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive, please call your health care provider.

Restarting Vermont, Slowly
This past Friday, Governor Scott announced a third phase of the process to carefully open up daily life in our state. Additional “non-critical” businesses can begin limited operations as long as they follow strict health protocols. The above link outlines specific guidelines, including amendments to earlier orders and expansions that go in effect on May 11 for manufacturing, construction, and distribution operations. All employees, including those already working must complete training on mandatory health and safety requirements, developed by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) prior to opening operations. All employers must document that everyone who works for them has completed this training. In addition, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development has developed sector-specific guidance for many employment fields and Restart Vermont Resources, so be sure to review this guidance if you have questions about how to keep safe while on the job or doing business. It’s imperative that everyone take extra precautions and follow health and safety guidance so that Vermont can avoid a COVID resurgence after re-opening certain operations.

A specific project of interest to people in Addison County that has gotten special permission to restart this week is the Middlebury Downtown Bridge Replacement and Rail Line Improvement Project. The Project got permission to proceed after agreeing to strict medical screening, quarantine, and health & safety protocols. It is the only construction project involving out-of-state workers that has been allowed to proceed because all workers will be tested for COVID-19 prior to being allowed to work, and must remain in Vermont for 14 days of work at a time. Workers will be safely housed and fed in Middlebury and provided with daily on-site health screening. For more information and regular updates, you can follow the excellent Project Blog.

Health and Hygiene Update
On Monday, Governor Scott announced that hospitals and health care providers can begin to offer certain elective medical procedures and in-person appointments as long as they follow strict health and safety protocols, including physical distancing of patients, hand and surface washing, limiting patient companions, staff and patient screening, and other procedures. You can read the full executive order here. You should contact your health care provider to inquire about whether any pending health care needs you may have could now be safely addressed.

The Department of Health has begun to release town-specific data on COVID-19 infections and deaths on a town-by-town basis. This data is updated daily and included with the current COVID-19 activity in Vermont information. The most comprehensive place to stay up-to-date with the situation in Vermont remains the Vermont Department of Health website. Visit the Porter Medical Center website for information about local medical services, including testing for COVID-19. If you are experiencing symptoms or have questions about your health for any reason, please call your primary care physician before going in person for testing or medical care. If you do not have a primary care physician, you can call Vermont 2-1-1 for assistance finding a doctor.

Today is Hand Hygiene Day, a day celebrated by the World Health Organization to “make hand hygiene a global priority.” While WHO marked this day in years past, it’s even more important this year because hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. Also remember to wear a mask and maintain at least a six-feet distance from others when out in public. This will protect your health as well as others around you, and will help with efforts to be able to safely open up Vermont.

Childcare, School, and College
I know that many parents, including me, are concerned about how and when childcare programs, schools, and colleges will be able to reopen safely. The Agency of Education and Child Development Division are working on plans for how early childhood programs could restart early this summer, and have issued a survey to providers about what their needs could be. I have been in regular contact with early childhood programs in Addison County, which have been working hard to create program-specific plans to support children and families. I expect more information will be out in the next couple weeks about how and when these programs could re-open. I have been in contact with the Agency of Education about their planning efforts for protocols that will allow schools to re-open in the fall. They are in the early stages of creating these plans, and I have encouraged them to communicate regularly with school leaders, teachers, and parents. Later this week, I expect announcements from the Governor about high school graduation ceremonies and summer activities and camps. It’s safe to say that none of these programs or institutions will proceed as usual and that parents and students should expect at least a temporary “new normal” for school and educational programs.

Higher education will also likely have a new normal. Several institutions, including the University of Vermont and the Vermont State Colleges have announced plans to welcome students to campus this fall, although the State Colleges especially will need significant state support to be able to do so. Middlebury College has moved all of its summer programs online, but continues to plan for a possible safe re-opening in the fall. They will wait to announce their fall plans until June 22. You can read President Laurie Patton’s recent update about the the College’s plans here. I am in regular contact with College officials to assist them if needed, as I know that Middlebury College is the largest employer and likely the biggest economic-driver for Addison County, so the livelihood of many people in our community is directly or indirectly tied to the College.

Finally, we all know that Vermonters step up to help, especially when it’s important. So, I leave you with the story of an eighth-grade boy from Bristol who stepped up to run for governor in 2018. We can all probably agree that it’s best not to have a 15-year-old governor right now, but Ethan Sonneborn stepped up when he thought it was important for young people to have a voice in politics. You can watch Ethan’s inspiring story in this short video, which will remind you that indeed, we live in a special place:

We’re all in this together. Take care, stay home, and be in touch.