Gov. Scott closes schools, health department expands testing
By Mike Eldred
MONTPELIER- Late Thursday afternoon, Gov. Phil Scott issued an order dismissing in-person education at Vermont schools for the remainder of the school year.
The latest order supersedes his earlier order, which closed schools until April 6.
Under the order, districts have until Monday, April 13, to implement remote learning plans.
At his press conference on Friday, March 27, Gov. Scott said the decision to close schools for the remainder of the year was intended to allow students, parents, and schools to be able to plan for the next two to three months, as well as to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable Vermonters. “Slowing the spread of infection is critical to making sure we can protect the vulnerable, meaning the elderly and others who are at risk for serious illness and, in too many cases, even death,” Scott said. “These steps are also necessary to keep our health care system from being overwhelmed like we’re seeing right before our eyes in other states like New York. What we’re doing is important to the health and safety of all Vermonters.”
Gov. Scott acknowledged that, for many families, the move would be a burden. “I know this news is incredibly difficult,” Gov. Scott said. “Let’s face it, it’s disappointing, frustrating and it’s just plain sad for kids, parents, teachers, and all school employees. The education of our kids, along with the bonding and learning experiences they get at school, are incredibly important, so I fully understand and appreciate the impact this will have on our kids individually, and families across Vermont. But from my vantage point, I believe it’s the right decision because it’s for the health of our kids, communities, and the entire state.”
Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French will issue guidance on school graduations and other end-of-year gatherings by Friday, May 8. Gov. Scott said there is still a possibility that schools will be able to open in June for school community activities. “Even with this decision, it’s my hope that with the mitigation steps we’ve taken, our children will be able to return at the end of the year for activities like graduation. But we won’t make that decision until we’re certain it’s safe.”
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that the number of COVID-19 patients in Vermont had risen by another 25 since Thursday, bringing the total to 183. He also said two more people in Vermont have died from the virus. “Unfortunately, we had a death yesterday and another one earlier this morning, bringing the total number of deaths to 10.”
Levine also announced a significant change in the state's COVID-19 testing strategy that will result in expanding testing for those with coronavirus symptoms. “As the state enters this period of the latest stay-at-home mitigation strategy, the further containment allows us to take advantage of this time in our work to further flatten the curve. Later today I expect the Vermont Department of Health to allow more latitude in testing. People with mild to moderate symptoms will have more opportunity to get tested.”
Levine said the change will not mean that people can start showing up at testing locations with the expectation of getting tested. “The tests still must be ordered by a physician,” he said. “And to be clear, if people are not symptomatic we will not be testing them. But if you have mild to moderate symptoms, we're making it much easier to get tested.”
The benefit of the new testing protocols, he said, was to be able to better identify people with the virus, isolate them, identify their contacts, and slow the spread. “Vermont is still early enough in the curve that this strategy may be effective.”
The danger, he said, is that Vermont could run out of testing supplies in 10 days to two weeks. However, he said the state has recently procured additional testing supplies and will continue to seek more. “At the very earliest part of this crisis, most states didn't have the ability to do any testing,” he said. We've only been in this two and a half weeks, but in the very first week we saw the wisdom of trying to find out how pervasive this was in the population, but we didn’t have the capacity to (test) on as large a scale as we wanted.”
Levine said there was some “luck involved” in procuring more testing supplies. “There were people in high places with a connection to Vermont that understand what we're going through,” he said. “We have multiple strategies going on at the same time to ensure a supply of both procurement supplies and testing kits.”
Levine also addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on smokers and vapers, as well as the impact on people in recovery for substance abuse. “Everyone understands the impact of smoking and vaping on lungs and lung health,” he said. “And it is harder for people who smoke or vape to fight off the illness. There's a greater danger of death.”
For smokers who would like to quit, Levine suggested that the stay-at-home order provided an opportunity. He directed people who would like to quit smoking to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for resources including one-on-one coaching and support. “There's never been a better reason to quit,” he said. “And with people staying at home looking for things to do, what better time for smokers to do what we know a lot of them think about, quitting. It will also reduce the exposure to family members.”
Levine also acknowledged that the global pandemic and the stay-at-home order created new challenges for Vermonters who need substance abuse assistance. He directed people to seek assistance at vthelplink.org. “Vt help link is a single-source clearing house for Vermonters to get confidential information and referrals to substance abuse resources throughout the state. It includes an online screening tool for treatment options, and you can chat online with staff. It's a key resource for anyone who wants treatment and to succeed in recovery.