Directive to wear face masks in public may be coming
MONTPELIER- At a press conference Monday, exactly one month after declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Phil Scott hinted that there may be more orders coming this week, including a directive to wear face masks when in public.
"It's hard to believe it was only one month ago today that I declared a state of emergency to address the COVID-19 pandemic," Gov. Scott said. "Since then, we've taken many extraordinary steps to slow the spread of this very contagious virus, steps that are saving lives."
Noting that his order Friday, extending the state of emergency to May 15, may have been disappointing to many, Gov. Scott said the state would begin lifting restrictions as soon as possible. He said his team is already looking for ways to get Vermonters back to work. "Vermonters have stepped up to the challenge by staying home, which I know has been difficult and has had a tremendous impact on your daily lives," he said. "We will continue to watch the trend and our hospital capacity so as soon as we can dial back some of these steps in a measured, responsible, and safe manner, we will. We're working hard to get money into the hands of Vermonters as soon as possible. We're seeing a flattening of the curve, but we still don't know when it will peak. As difficult as it is, we must continue to stay home so we don't overwhelm the hospital system."
Gov. Scott said Vermont had been cited as one of the top five states in terms of compliance with mitigation measures, and he said Vermonters' sacrifices were saving the lives of other Vermonters. "A few weeks ago our worst case scenario showed that, if we had done nothing, the hospital system would have been overrun, with two to three times more cases than we have hospital beds. Reaching that point would have cost hundreds, thousands of lives. And remember, these are not just numbers, they're our parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, members of our community who have spent their lives taking care of us. These are the people you've helped keep alive, and I hope you all realize what a selfless gift this is, protecting the vulnerable as well as health care workers and first responders."Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the spread of the virus continues to slow. "As of midnight yesterday, there were 21 additional cases, out of 500 tests," he said. "We're just shy of 750 cases in the state. We also, unfortunately, had one additional death. But the number of new cases per day is getting smaller, leveling off. We seem to be approaching a plateau. We'll see if that's a sustained phenomenon or a trend over several days."
Levine said Vermont would not be seeing the slowdown in coronavirus cases if the state's mitigation strategies had not been successful, and if Vermonters hadn't been so diligent in complying with them. But he warned that not following recommendations to wear a face mask when in close contact with the public risks spreading the virus. "I had an opportunity to visit a big box store this weekend, and a medium-sized supermarket," he said. "I found lots of people wearing facial coverings, both the people in the stores, and the people working there. But I also found noteworthy exceptions. They must realize that, whether they were told not to or chose not to wear a facial covering, they are putting themselves at extreme risk." Levine said that people infected with COVID-19 may be contagious 48 hours before they begin experiencing symptoms.
Later in the press conference, Gov. Scott said that the wearing of protective masks in certain situations may become part of new directives as early as this week. "I think you can expect something, depending on what we see, regarding provisions to protect ourselves as well as others."
Levine also noted that, since he suggested people use their social distancing time to quit smoking, the state's quit smoking helpline has seen a 41% increase in telephonic registrations, and a 167% increase in online registrations. "That's phenomenal, remarkable," he said. "I congratulate all who represent those statistics."
Levine said testing was going to play a critical role in the state's future COVID-19 strategy. Serologic testing, he said, would reveal who has been exposed to the virus and has antibodies and some level of immunity to the coronavirus. Currently, he said, it was more important to know who is infected.
Levine said there are a number of different tests on the market now, with varying levels of accuracy. He said he has appointed a panel of experts to review the performance characteristics of the tests and come to a conclusion about the most appropriate ones for Vermont to use. An inaccurate test, he said, can do harm. "If a test has 80% sensitivity, that means one out of five who are positive may not show up on the test," he said. "We want to know what the best test out there is, which one has undergone the scrutiny of the science community. In a sense this is a big screening exercise, and one of the principals of screening is do no harm. It's surprising how little it takes to do harm with screening." Levine said false positives on mammograms, for instance, are fairly common. "A false positive may mean not only having to repeat the mammogram, it might also mean getting a fine needle biopsy or something dramatic. At the very least it can create anxiety that stays with patients for years. So we have to be very careful when we talk about tests. We need tests that are truly accurate."