Business & Economy

Vermont’s Covid rate remains low despite small uptick in Northeast

Phil Scott with travel map
Gov. Phil Scott discusses the state’s quarantine requirements for travelers during a press briefing on July 24, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Despite a small regional increase in Covid-19 cases, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott made a small turn of the spigot Friday, increasing the number of people who can be inside retail stores from 25% to 50%.

“We’re still concerned with what we are seeing nationally, but our own numbers show we can take another step forward,” Scott said of the capacity increase. 

Vermont continues to show the lowest rate of Covid-19 infection in the country, according to state officials. But cases have increased in the Northeast 25% in the last four weeks as infections have surged nationally.

Speaking at his regular Covid-19 press conference, Scott added that the state will hand out 200,000 masks through local health departments, fire departments, and other public entities. A new order that requires masks be worn in public places goes into effect in Vermont Saturday.

The masks, and the mandate, will help protect retail employees who have been required to wear masks since stores started reopening in May, said Scott. He said he had pledged to retailers — many of whom had called for a state mask mandate — that he would consider making masks mandatory before expanding capacity in stores.

Stores are fairly low-risk for Covid-19 transmission, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

“There is not a prolonged time when you are in that facility,” as there is in other indoor public places such as restaurants or gyms, said Levine. “There’s not a lot of one-on-one close contact, and where there is, it’s usually at a cash register where they have plexiglass and everyone is masked.”

For the last several weeks, Vermont health officials have been simultaneously touting the state’s success at suppressing Covid-19 infections and warning that the state won’t be untouched by the rising infection numbers in the South and the West.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 70,000 new cases in the U.S. Friday from the day before, and 1,200 new deaths. 

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While Vermont’s numbers have stayed low, this week the state saw its first Covid-19 death since June 16. Vermont has had 1,414 cases overall — about half of them in Chittenden County —  and 57 deaths, with eight new cases Friday, according to the Vermont Department of Health Covid-19 dashboard.

But “those numbers are continuing to increase closer to home,” said Mike Pieciak, commissioner at Vermont Department of Financial Regulation and now the leader of the state’s Covid-19 modeling efforts. Pieciak said Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts had reported their highest case numbers since June. The Northeast has seen four weeks of case growth, he said, with about 25% more new cases in that time.

“Even Quebec, where the virus has been in retreat for a very long time, has seen a new uptick,” he said.

There has been an increase in Covid-19 cases related to popular beach areas, such as the Jersey Shore, the Hamptons, the coastline in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Cape Cod and parts of the coast of Maine, Pieciak said. 

The number of safe counties in the Northeast have declined, he said. At one point, a population of about 14.2 million people in the region could travel to Vermont without quarantining, under Vermont’s travel policy. Now that number stands at about 4.8 million, Pieciak said. 

Vermont’s map of counties in nearby states that qualify for quarantine-free travel as of July 31, 2020. Screenshot from ACCD website.

Accordingly, state officials are putting limits on the areas from which people can travel to Vermont without having to undergo a two-week quarantine, or a week’s quarantine with a negative Covid-19 test. But Pieciak added mask-wearing could change the growth pattern very quickly in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states.

“If each of these states achieved universal mask-wearing, defined as 95% of people wearing masks when appropriate, we would expect to see new cases decline everywhere throughout the region over the next three months in every single state,” he said. “Even states that are expected to see rapid growth over the next three months would see decline if they achieve universal mask-wearing.”

A focus on schools

State officials on July 28 moved the mandatory school start date for K-12 to Sept. 8, saying the extra time would help districts prepare for in-person or online education, or a mixture of both. 

The shape of the coming school year has been an intense focus for parents and teachers, with many saying it’s not safe for schools to reopen yet. Some teachers have said on social media that they would rather leave their jobs than return to the classroom.

“We’re all concerned about that, first of all for the well-being of those members of the staff, the teachers and so forth, and their families,” said Scott. “We want to make sure that we’re protecting everyone.” 

Education Secretary Dan French added that he thought a hybrid model, with some classes online and some in the classroom, would provide the safest environment.  

Prison cases

Safety in correctional facilities has also been a matter of concern. This week six inmates who had recently traveled from a correctional facility in Mississippi to the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland tested positive for the virus. Another Vermont inmate who is still at the Mississippi facility also tested positive.

Levine said the state’s strict protocols helped ensure that no other inmates or staff came in close contact with the people who had tested positive. He reminded listeners that there is still much that health officials don’t know about Covid-19.

“While we are hopeful that together our efforts will keep us from experiencing more illness and deaths in the future, we must recognize that our standing is fragile. The virus is new to the human race,” he said. “And while we have learned a great deal about how it spreads, we don’t yet know everything.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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