On March 17, 2021

Virus in Vermont: One year later

Timeline of Covid-19 related executive orders in March 2020

March 7: the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Vermont.

March 13: Governor Scott declared a State of Emergency.

March 13, Governor Scott restricted non-essential gatherings of more than 250 people and prohibited all non-essential out-of-state travel by state employees.

March 13: Governor Scott restricted visitor access at long-term care facilities.

March 15: Governor Scott directed the dismissal of Pre-K-12 schools.

March 16: Governor Scott ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants.

March 17: Governor Scott directed childcare centers to close.

March 19: Governor Scott authorized takeout and delivery of alcoholic beverages with food orders.

March 21: Governor Scott ordered the closure of close-contact businesses.

March 21: Governor Scott further restricted non-essential gatherings to 10 or less people.

March 23: Governor Scott ordered telecommuting or work from home procedures for all businesses and not-for-profit entities, to the maximum extent possible.

March 24: Governor Scott issued a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order and directed the closure of in-person operations for all non-essential businesses (effective March 25-April 15).

March 26: Governor Scott directed schools to remain dismissed for in-person instruction through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

March 30: Governor Scott ordered residents and non-residents coming from outside the state for anything other than an essential purpose to home-quarantine for 14 days.

Courtesy of University of Vermont Medical Center in cooperation with the Dept. of Health
Dr. Mark Levine received his first dose of Covid-19 vaccine on March 12 at a clinic in Essex.

Experts say life could return to normal by summer

By Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Life as we knew it changed on March 13, 2020, when Vermont’s governor declared a state of emergency that would extend to this day. That was followed by the dismissal of Pre-K-12 school on March 15, the closure of bars and restaurants on March 16 and the closure of all close-contact businesses March 21 and non-essential in-person business operations on March 24.

The series of mandates seemed to come like rapid fire that within a few weeks led to the shutdown of the state’s economy. Schools and ski areas were closed, nonessential workers were told to telecommute or were laid off and gatherings outside of immediate family were banned.

At one point, more than 70,000 Vermonters filed for unemployment.

People who traveled and returned to the state had to quarantine for 14 days. Airline travel was effectively grounded. Masks were mandated by many communities — and, eventually, by the state.

Trips to the grocery store became exotic interludes from sheltering in place. Toilet paper and sanitizer became hot commodities. Gardening supplies sold out. Sourdough baking became a thing. Hospitals began drive-through testing operations. And thrice-weekly press conferences featuring the governor and the commissioner of health became a psychological lifeline for Vermonters as the state navigated the once-in-a-century public health event.

One year later, that reality hasn’t changed much. Vermonters are still holding their collective breath as the federal government makes more vaccine available just as new, more contagious and more virulent variants of the virus are spreading from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

In briefings, Gov. Phil Scott and Dr. Mark Levine, the state health commissioner, have urged residents to stay vigilant — as they have for a year now. The mantra — wear masks, social distance and stay away from crowded places — remains the same.

So when will life return to normal? Experts weigh in on what the near-term prospects are for lifting restrictions and what the lingering effects will be when the pandemic is over.

By April, about 200,000 Vermonters will likely be inoculated, experts say. And if the Biden administration meets targets for vaccine production and distribution, every adult in the state could be vaccinated by the end of May.

While many experts have been reluctant to say when normalcy could return, Dr. Stephen Leffler, president and chief operating officer of UVM Medical Center, said he could see the state lifting pandemic restrictions by June 15, if all goes according to plan.

According to Leffler, vaccination rates nationwide could reach 60% to 70% by the end of May, and if that’s the case, strong protections should be in place by mid-June.

“At that point, I personally feel quite comfortable that we can drop most restrictions in most circumstances,” he said.

In certain environments, such as health care settings, people may still need to wear masks, he said, but once most people are vaccinated it will be possible to eat together, socialize and even attend concerts without fear of contagion.

Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, said the new variants are a “wild card,” and there is still too much uncertainty to say when the governor will ease restrictions. While she didn’t rule out the possibility of a full reopening of the economy by mid-June, she said the governor wants to see more people vaccinated and test-positivity rates decline.

In the meantime, continued adherence to public health protocols will be necessary.

Dr. Jan Carney, an associate dean of public health at the University of Vermont’s Larner School of Medicine, also hesitated to give a specific end date. “I can’t predict the future,” she said.

But Carney said the high level of coordination between the governor’s office, the Dept. of Health, the university and the medical center has led to public confidence in the state’s approach to the pandemic. A survey her team conducted last fall showed that Vermonters have been remarkably compliant with mask mandates and other measures.

Vermont has done the best job of managing the crisis of any state in the nation, Carney said, but its residents need to keep at it for a while longer.

Carney believes that public trust will carry over to vaccinations. “I feel very fortunate that we live here in a state where people have taken it very seriously, and have worked together to try and keep the numbers of infections as low as practicably possible to minimize the harmful effect on people here,” she said.

According to Carney, an evidence-based approach should prevail until vaccinations are more widely available. “As we continue on with vaccinating more and more in the population, I do think that we will see fewer restrictions,” Carney said. “Now, does normal mean we just flip the switch and go back to how life was right before the pandemic started? Not necessarily.”

A race to vaccinate ahead of the variants

Experts say the clock is ticking as states like Vermont race to get the population inoculated as quickly as possible. That’s because there are worries that the so-called “variants of concern,” a term that refers to three known Covid-19 mutations and several others that have been recently identified, could overtake public health efforts to vaccinate Americans.

The variants of concern include: the United Kingdom’s B.1.1.7, which is more contagious but no more deadly than the main strain of Covid; and B.1.351 from South Africa and P.1 from Manaus, Brazil, both of which are more contagious and more deadly. Scientists have also said there are new mutations from New York City and California.

It’s common for viruses to mutate. The Great Influenza of 1918 did so a half-dozen times and killed an estimated 50 million people globally before it dissipated in the early 1920s. Because of global public health efforts, the total number of deaths worldwide during the Covid crisis has so far been significantly lower, at 2.62 million, so far.

Because identification of variants requires genomic sequencing, the federal government is only spot-checking a dozen or so Vermont samples for the variants every two weeks. Last week, the UK variant was found in a Chittenden County patient.

Public health experts said vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will prevent hospitalizations associated with the more contagious variants.

Carney, the UVM College of Medicine dean, said studies have shown the vaccines have been “100% effective” in preventing deaths.

While the variants are a challenge, the biggest hurdle was “creating the vaccine in the first place,” Carney said. The development of effective Covid vaccines in less than a year (with 74 vaccines currently in the human trial phase) is an extraordinary scientific accomplishment, she said.

The vaccines authorized under the FDA’s emergency use program are safe and effective, Carney said.

Vaccine “hesitancy,” parlance for skepticism about immunizations, shouldn’t be an issue, she said, because the pharmaceutical companies followed “a rigorous process.” Now the difficulty is a logistical one — ensuring that distribution happens quickly.

There is room for optimism, Leffler said. A month from now, people who are 14 days out from full vaccination will be able to do more things, “like meet with other people who are vaccinated in small gatherings, not have to quarantine after exposures.”

Six months from now, Leffler anticipates the state will return to a pre-pandemic way of life. Every Vermonter who wants to be vaccinated will have the opportunity, children will be back to school, hospital visits will be possible and most gatherings will be allowed, he said.

“There will still need to be some sort of situations where we need to mask or socially distance, but I think it’ll be markedly less than we’re seeing today,” Leffler said.

Johns Hopkins Professor Chatterjee said the biggest challenges going forward will be vaccine hesitancy, the potency of variants and access to robust vaccines. “Our expectations have to be moderated,” he said.

Large gatherings of hundreds or thousands of people would continue to be risky later this year.

“People will still be scared of crowded places,” Chatterjee said. While 2021 will begin to feel more normal as small groups of people begin to feel comfortable together, he said, it will likely be 2022 before large gatherings like conferences, sports events and concerts are commonplace again.

By the spring of 2022, the state will be post-pandemic, Leffler speculates. Vermont will likely have low levels of Covid, but it won’t “be filling our ICUs. It won’t be stressing the amount of people on ventilators,” he said.

“Covid will become part of the new normal, like having the flu or something like that,” Leffler said.

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