Covid-19 updates, Featured

‘Travel now equals quarantine’

Officials strongly discourage holiday travel, out-of-state guests; urge Vermonters to limit gatherings to 10

By Polly Mikula

There are no longer any out-of-state locations that qualify for non-quarantine travel to Vermont.

“We are temporarily suspending our out-of-state travel map and requiring all non-essential travelers to quarantine,” said Governor Phil Scott at the news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 10. “When you consider how much red we are seeing [on the map] now in the northeast, and that it’s not likely to improve in the next couple weeks, it only made sense to simplify the policy in order to ensure better compliance.”

“We’re not in the same place today as we’ve been over the past several months,” Scott continued. “Many have become lax as the risk has been so low… but now the risk is much higher than what we’ve been used to.”

“The good news is we’ve proven that we can change our trajectory, but we’ll need to dig deep and double our efforts so we can protect the most vulnerable and keep our schools and economy open,” Scott implored.

“We have shown what we can do when we all pull in the same direction,” Scott continued. “We need to think carefully about the decisions we make, think about our wants vs. our needs. If it’s just a want, let’s hold off on it for a while. Because what we need to do is keep our kids in school for in-person learning, and keep our businesses open and our workers working.  This will require every Vermonter to wear a mask, keep 6 feet away from others and limit the number of people you’re in contact with.

To the skeptics

“And I do mean we need EVERY Vermonters,” Scott said. “So I want to speak directly to the skeptics, for a moment. Those who are not wearing masks or taking other precaution:

“I understand that this may seem inconvenient, and from your point of view, unnecessary, unfair and difficult. But simply refusing to do your part is dangerous to the rest of us. It puts people you know and love at much higher risk and it makes it harder for us to take steps forward to reopen our economy. So I’m asking you to think about what you can do to help us stop the growing wave of infections that are starting to lead to more hospitalizations and, sadly, will surely lead to more deaths. Please do your part. I know it’s a choice, but I’m asking you to make the right choice for the right reasons. Together we can change our trajectory, protect the gains we’ve made and keep moving forward.”

Compliance assessments

To help in the effort the state will be increasing its outreach and educational efforts to ensure adherence to health and safety guidance.

Commissioner of the Dept. of Public Safety Michael Schirling said his dept. “will be reimplementing and expanding a strategy used in the spring the assessment of key locations for compliance with health and safety guidance. The overall strategy is to … conduct plain-clothed, randomized compliance and education assessments.”

The compliance checks will be begin on or about Nov. 12 and focus on lodging establishments, restaurants and bars to assess a baseline rate of compliance. All contacts will be logged, Schirling noted.

While preliminary visits are designed to be compliance checks, “if substantial non-compliance is found, multiple violations, staff or owners who are actively resistant to educational efforts or safety guidance, referrals may be made to the attorney general’s office, as has been the case for the past eight months,” he said.

Beginning next week state law enforcement will also begin distributing Covid-19 safety cards during all traffic stops statewide, as an additional educational effort, Schirling added.

Limiting gathering size

The state announced an advisory Friday, Nov. 6, for Vermonters to limit social gathering sizes to 10 people or fewer with a very limited number of trusted households.

“The safest approach is to stick to your own household, especially when it comes to indoor gatherings and when people are eating — obviously without masks on like at a Thanksgiving dinner,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

“The fact is our entire region is in danger from the surge in Covid cases that are happening right now. It’s very clear that things will not improve anytime soon. Looking at the map of red today is very instructive,” he said. “We need to act now.  We are truly on a threshold here. The decision we make today will truly determine our future. And I don’t mean our long-term future, I mean our immediate future,” Levine added.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading the virus, so we need to avoid traveling as much as we practically can,” he said.

Scott said it more bluntly on Tuesday: “If you don’t need to travel right now, don’t.”

“Anyone who travels now must remember one thing: they need to follow Vermont’s quarantine rules, no matter what county they are coming from or traveling to. Travel now equals quarantine,” Levine said, adding, “Just to reiterate what quarantine means, it means staying home and away from people for at least 14 days or 7 days with a negative PCR test as long as you don’t have any symptoms.”

“I want to keep every Vermonters’ focus on my two main points: Severely limiting travel and being extremely careful and cautious regarding small gatherings beyond immediate family,” Levine concluded.

Keeping schools open

Containing the spread of the virus will not benefit the health of Vermonters and its economy, but also will allow schools to remain open for in-person instruction, which is important for students as well as their families and their parents employment.

In-person instruction is best for kids academically and emotionally, and reducing social gatherings is the way Vermonters can help schools provide it, said Dr. Rebecca Bell, the president of the state’s local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Friday. She added that the state has seen little Covid-19 transmission in schools. Vermont has seen a total of 54 cases at 41 K-12 school since September, including students and staff, which is significantly lower than New Hampshire’s 406 cases and Maine’s 211 cases.

“Pediatricians want to highlight the good work that schools are doing and to implore Vermonters to follow health department guidelines around masking, distancing, avoiding crowded spaces, adhering to travel guidelines, getting the flu shot and staying home when sick,” said Bell. “The days get darker and colder, and as we enter the holiday season, following the guidelines will be more important than ever, in order to keep kids in school.”

“I know this is difficult news, especially around the holidays,” Scott said. “But by being smart about gatherings and travel now, we can keep schools and our economy open, and we will get through this pandemic faster and on better footing than just about any other state.”

Case numbers

There are currently 20 outbreaks and 63 situation that state officials are monitoring, Levine said, Tuesday. They are at schools, child care sites, colleges and universities, health care facilities, worksites and social gatherings. The largest outbreak is still the one associated with ice sports in the Montpelier area. There are now 125 cases associated with that outbreak, 76 of which are at St. Michaels college.

The state predicts a 79% rise in cases nationally and a 105% rise in cases in the Northeast in the next six weeks, according to forecasts presented by Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the dept. of financial regulation.

Vermont is hitting case numbers not seen since the pandemic started in the spring. The state reported 46 cases and 12 hospitalizations Tuesday, and announced another death from the virus, the state’s first since July.

There have been over a hundred cases reported in each of the past three weeks: 142 (week ending Oct. 26), 134 (Nov. 2) and 196 (Nov. 9). That’s nearly double the average in early October and quadruple the average for September.

Increased testing

We need to keep our social circles small and limit our contacts. But “if you do, or did recently, socialize with people outside of your usual social circle, or attended a crowed event, please do not have close contact with others and consider get tested. You can get tested now as well as seven days after the event or gathering,” Levine said.

The state is entering into a contract and “speedily working toward a plan” with CIC Health of Cambridge Massachusetts, to offer testing every day of the week at locations across the state, Levine said. The test will be a PCR self-administered nasal swap.

“This is part of our ongoing offense against the virus. This is part of our fight,” Levine said.

Additionally, the state is increasing surveillance testing to better understand true Covid levels in Vermont.

The state will focus on teachers and staff in K-12 schools with testing set to begin as soon as next week. Starting the week after Thanksgiving all teachers and staff in one quarter of the state’s schools will be tested each week so that each month all teachers and staff in all schools will have been tested, Levine explained.

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