Coronavirus updates

Vermont’s Covid case numbers continue to trend low, but continued vigilance is needed

By Polly Mikula

Vermont is second only to Hawaii in its low number of total Covid cases (Vermont has 1,301; Hawaii has 1,138) and has posted the lowest positivity rating the the country for the past couple weeks, “so we’re doing something right,” Governor Phil Scott said at the state’s regular press conference, Tuesday, July 14.

“Vermonters have been really good at following guidelines and it’s made a difference” he said.

But risky behavior can lead to outbreaks, said Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine — and it only takes a handful of cases to ignite the spark.

“We just need to be a little bit more careful when traveling [to out-of-state hot spots],” said Smith. “Don’t visit a non-trusted travel area then come back, not quarantine and then socialize in risky ways… it’s a pattern I’m beginning to be concerned about,” he said.

“We need to remind ourselves of what is happening in other states. Even though we’ve had low cases here, we’re not immune from outbreaks,” added Smith. “All it takes is one or two.

“I would say there’s been handful that I’ve seen over the past few weeks. But the potential of what a handful can do can have big effects on where our numbers are… All it takes is one or two cases to lead to an outbreak.

“I know keeping an on-guard presence of mind is hard to maintain, I understand, but it’s important,” he concluded.

Levine used many examples to help listeners understand levels of risk for infection.

“Cooking for yourself or getting takeout is low risk… Eating at a restaurant outdoors would increase the risk to medium, but eating at a restaurant indoors would be high risk… Shopping at the grocery store or at retail shops, if you’re wearing a mask and keeping physical distance when you can is low risk. Going to a hair salon is medium to high risk,” he said. “Traveling by plane, train or bus is among the highest of risks.”

Other highest risk activities include: “indoor religious services, especially if you’re singing, going to a bar or attending an event like a concert indoors.”

“Don’t spend your total exposure budget at one time,” Levine said. “Don’t put yourself in unnecessary risk to expose yourself to Covid-19. By understanding risk levels in general you can better make choices about behaviors that could be low, medium or  high risk.

30+ positive Covid tests in the Manchester area

After Manchester Medical Center, an urgent care center, alerted the state that they had recently seen over 30 positive Covid test results, community members have grown concerned, though the state says not enough information is known just yet.

The positive tests were conducted with an antigen test, which is a new type of diagnostic test designed for rapid detection of the virus. It’s good for screening but it’s less accurate than the more common PCR test that tests for active infections, Levine explained.

Positive tests done with the antigen tests are considered presumptive case rather than confirmed cases (lab confirmed) and are not counted in the state’s numbers until they are confirmed with the PCR test.

However, the state has still contacted all of the individuals associated with this presumptive outbreak and is beginning to contact trace— it is also encouraging all to get the PCR test at the pop-up testing site in Londonderry tomorrow (Wednesday).

Levine said some of those that tested positive with the antigen test are symptomatic and some are not.

“There were 30 positives cases before yesterday [Monday], and there were a lot more tested yesterday on same antigen test…  we’re not sure what those results are, yet. Tomorrow’s PCR testing will confirm the results for all who want it and we’ll know more then.”

“We’re very happy that the Manchester Medical Center alerted us to these cases, it’s not normal in terms of communication pathways. There are only one of two clinics that do antigen testing in the state that I know of, so we don’t have a presumed positives list,” Levine said.

Additional tests and testing sites will be added to match the community’s need. More will be known about the positivity rate of the presumptive outbreak after tomorrow’s PCR results, Levine added.

Despite a few outbreaks, “the slope of our curve has not markedly changed at all,” Levine said.

“Our experience is ups and downs in terms of positives. We’ve had zero days scattered throughout the weeks, then we’ve had days in the mid-to-upper teens. That’s our new normal” he said.

However, he said, “We shouldn’t look at illness as trivial, despite the tendency for non-hospitalized cases as being trivialized nationally. Sometimes people will feel quite bad, even if they’re not hospitalized. Sometimes for no fault of their own, sometimes because they were risky… But illness means a real lot. Their life has been significantly disrupted and so has their family and friends who they’ve been in contact with. We tell anyone with a positive test to isolate and their contact must quarantine… that’s disruptive!”

Mask mandate?

Scott has faced increasing pressure to make masks mandatory, rather than suggested, statewide, but he has resisted.

Proponents of making masks mandatory cite evidence that the practice make communities safer and continuity of policy rather than a hodgepodge of various towns and businesses attempting to implement their own rules and guidelines for customers.

However, Scott maintains that compliance has been generally good in Vermont and the numbers show that the current guidance is working as it is. He also says mandating masks won’t necessarily increase compliance, as there is no enforcement mechanism.

“I’m not afraid to be wrong and if the numbers show that we need to try something more, we can… but what is the enforcement mechanism? California has had a mask mandate for months and they had 10,000 new cases the other day. What enforcement mechanism would you like to see?”

“If you travel and you don’t take the time to quarantine you’re putting others at risk… the quarantine is mandatory too, but it’s hard to enforce…. We can’t close down our borders… we’re relying on the good will of others coming into our state and Vermonters leaving the state and coming back.

“That’s what the message today is to remain vigilant… if we let this fray, if we let this go we will have to roll things back. My goal to do this slowly and methodically so we don’t have to roll back… I’m starting to see people get a little lax and it’s concerning… wear your mask, stay physically distant, wash your hands… do your part.”

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