Gov. Phil Scott offered more details on his “stay home, stay safe” order during a news conference Wednesday, while public health and safety officials shared what they’re expecting as the COVID-19 outbreak continues.
The order, which Scott announced Tuesday, directs nonessential businesses and nonprofits to cease in-person operations, and orders citizens to stay indoors as much as possible, by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“I need you to stay home,” Scott said. “Doing so will save lives, it’s just that simple. That doesn’t mean you can’t go out for your essential needs, or take your dog for a walk or take your cross country skis out, just keep your distance from others while doing so.”
Commissioner of the Department of Health, Dr. Mark Levine, said the number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont is growing exponentially.
“I want to remind you that it was only two weeks ago that we had one case in Vermont,” he said.
The Vermont Department of Health on Wednesday confirmed 28 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death, bringing the total number of COVID-related deaths in Vermont to eight.
The total number of positive COVID-19 tests for Vermont was 123 on Wednesday, out of 1,712 tests conducted. The number of cases reported Tuesday was 95.
For the last few days, as the number of cases has grown, the health department has no longer been reporting the home county, age or gender of the new patients. There have been no details about the deaths either, since the weekend when health department officials said four deaths were residents of Burlington Health and Rehabilitation and one was being treated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in White River Junction.
There are five confirmed cases in both Washington and Rutland counties as of Wednesday.
Levine said the goal of all the COVID-19 measures has been to keep lots of people from getting sick all at once, and overloading the health care system.
“One thing we do know is the magnitude of the impact if nothing is done, and I can assure you the impact of what we’re going to do will lead to a far more favorable end result than if we had done nothing at all,” he said.
The order Scott issued Tuesday is in effect until April 15, but the governor made it clear that the timeline might be extended and more measures might have to be taken.
“We understand there are basic needs, you can leave for essential things like going to the grocery store and the pharmacy, or to seek medical care, or as I said earlier just to get out and get some fresh air and some exercise,” said Scott. “But when doing so it’s important to keep about six feet from others, wash your hands a lot, cough or sneeze into your elbow, if you’re unsure about something, whether you should be doing it or not, err on the side of public health and stay home.”
Excluded from the order are businesses that “are critical to public health and safety, and to economic and national security, like health care operations, and things like grocery stores and pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, critical manufacturing sectors, news media operations, those that serve vulnerable populations as well as services needed to maintain critical infrastructure and transportation,” he said.
Businesses owners with questions, or who believe they’re essential to public health, safety and the COVID-19 response, should go to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development website, said ACCD Secretary, Lindsey Kurrle.
“The governor has directed all in-person business operations to suspend, unless your are deemed essential to the COVID-19 response or national security,” Kurrle said. “This means companies that can move all, or part of their business, to remote operations can continue to operate those parts of their business.”
She said there’s an online form available on the ACCD website for business owners to fill out. She recommended people use the form and not try to contact ACCD personnel directly.
In response to media questions about how many beds and supplies Vermont has available to deal with an expected surge in COVID-19 patients, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the state needs, and is getting, more.
He said as of Wednesday there are 575 beds, 163 ventilators, 78,000 N95 masks and 88,000 surgical masks available.
“These numbers I gave you are not enough,” Smith said. “As we’re looking at the surge here and looking at what (Dr. Levine) showed on his charts, I think at a minimum we ought to double all the numbers I just gave you in terms of ventilators, beds available, those sort of things as we look at where these trend lines are going.”
Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said the Vermont National Guard is working on building three additional medical sites to handle the expected influx of patients. Planning is multi-layered, looking at best- and worst-case scenarios.
“As we mentioned earlier, the surge site build-out is happening and planning continues for that multi-layer,” said Schirling. “In addition, we’re sourcing both ventilators and (personal protective equipment). It’s important to note that the hospitals and health care facilities have their own supply chains, they’re accelerating those supply chains as fast as possible. The state is helping to supplement those supply chains. We bought millions of dollars in ventilators over the last two days, we bought 202 that are inbound for Vermont. The timelines aren’t known yet, but we’re buying them as fast as possible.”
The governor said between the three surge sites an additional 250 patients can be handled.
“We will meet the capacity we need,” Scott said.
Scott and Schirling indicated that Vermonters have been cooperative with the various COVID-19 measures that have come out so far.
“We’re about to issue guidance to municipalities and law enforcement organizations with suggested guidance on enforcement, and that will take the form initially of education and voluntary compliance,” said Schirling, adding that he believes this will largely be a self-regulated effort. However, a business running in defiance of an executive order could still face penalties, possibly through its state licenses.
“You have seen an increase in the visibility of law enforcement, that’s by design at this time,” he said in response to a question about individuals possibly being stopped on the street by police. “The presence of someone out and about at this time does not create the lawful ability to stop someone in a motor vehicle or pursue someone walking because there are legitimate reasons for people to be walking around.”
Scott said guidelines will be issued to towns and law enforcement agencies on how to enforce executive orders should that be necessary.
Meanshile, Congressman Peter Welch said Congress has passed two multi-billion dollar bills aimed at increasing unemployment insurance, helping hospitals, and small businesses. He said the Senate was working on a much larger bill as he spoke.
“This is extraordinary, it’s a $2 trillion economic aid package that is necessary, and there are many details to be worked out, but the contours give me some real optimism that Republican and Democrats are going to come together to get that aid back to individuals, to small businesses, and to our states,” said Welch.
The governor said he’s aware of the problems these measures are causing, but they’re necessary.
“Just to put this into perspective for those that may think we’re going too far, this virus is spreading quickly,” he said. “It may not have affected you yet, but all too soon many of us will know someone personally, and then it will start to feel very real. This is why we are asking our businesses to think beyond the next month; we all care about the health of our employees, family, and friends, the steps we’re taking today are all about protecting our loved ones so we can come out of this as strong as possible.”
Correction: A headline in Tuesday’s edition was incorrect in giving the number of new COVID-19 deaths in Vermont as of Monday. It was three.
As health care workers in Vermont are taking on the challenge of responding to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, some individuals who have had close contact with the sick are asking for consideration.
Jeffrey Hochberg, who has been director at the Rutland Pharmacy for more than 15 years and serves at president of Vermont Retail Druggists, said he tries to remind consumers that the pharmacy is on the front line during a medical crisis.
“We have to stay open throughout this entire crisis. Diabetes, heart conditions, all of those pre-existing conditions will not stop because of this (pandemic) and we have to make sure we’re here to serve our communities,” Hochberg said.
Hochberg said the local pharmacy has to deal with anxious customers who have been told they should get a 90-day supply of medications, even if the medication wasn’t due for renewal. Doctors are approving the prescription, but Hochberg said the system wasn’t prepared for the rush.
“We have enough drugs in stock in the country, in the national warehouses, but it’s a matter of getting products to pharmacies so they can deliver them to patients,” Hochberg said.
He said it takes extra time to get from manufacturers to the pharmacies; it is the staff members at the local pharmacy who have to explain the problem to patients.
“As soon as this started hitting our country, the wholesalers started allocating to pharmacies all across the country as to how much product you could get at a time. Now, in certain situations, it’s reduced down to weekly allotments,” Hochberg said.
Hochberg said in his role with the Vermont Retail Druggists, an advocacy group, he had been working with Vermont lawmakers, who were doing what they can do to help.
The stores also need to wait for reimbursements from state, federal and private insurers.
The Rutland Pharmacy made another big change on Wednesday, responding to Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” policy. Hochberg said they’re still open, but using curbside service, mail and the drive-through window.
Marty Irons, supervisory pharmacist at Beauchamp and O’Rourke Pharmacy and past chairman of the board for the Vermont Pharmacists Association, said pharmacists have always been the most accessible health care professionals. They need to be mindful of their own health in order to serve the patients who come in seeking to have their prescriptions filled, he said.
“For ourselves to be able to continue to remain fairly accessible to a patient population, as well as provide medication, rather than putting the limited supplies of personal protective equipment that we’re able to receive on the shelf, we have to keep our own inventory, just like the hospital does so that we don’t run out,” he said.
Irons said he made an application about a week ago to the state for an emergency supply of masks; he has not received a response.
“Today, we’re fine. Tomorrow, we’re fine. But Vermont’s not going to peak for a couple of weeks, and that’s what I’m most concerned with, not being able to talk to patients face-to-face,” Irons said.
Hochberg said staff are getting questions about COVID-19, some of which can’t be answered.
“We have default responses that we can only tell you what the studies have shown,” Hochberg said.
As of Wednesday, Irons said Beauchamp was not taking the same steps the Rutland Pharmacy had in place. Many of their customers are very local and get to the pharmacy on foot, Irons said.
However, Irons said there is a sign on the door telling people Beauchamp has no thermometers, no hand sanitizer and no masks.
Hochberg said he was seeing positive developments. For instance, he said hospitals are helping them identify patients who have been confirmed as having COVID-19, so pharmacies can get medication to patients in a way that’s safe for the staff.
“It’s starting to happen. I think, actually, this most recent order (from the state,) it’s forced it. But I’m really trying to get the word out. A lot of people call and ask, ‘Are you guys going to be open? Are you going to be open? How am I going to get my meds?’ Pharmacies are going to be there. Grocery stores are going to be there. This community is going to rally together and do whatever they can. Pharmacy and pharmacy techs are going to brave it out, and they’re going to help as best they can,” he said.
The one-per-customer limit of boxes of gloves at local stores even applied to the United Way this week.
Caprice Hover, executive director of United Way of Rutland County, said she was relieved when she finally found a vendor to sell gloves in bulk — letting her order 10 boxes after she was denied in her efforts to purchase more from local retail outlets due to a “one per customer” policy instituted after a run on such supplies created shortages.
“I had five friends who all made purchases, and I waited outside for them,” she said Wednesday. “I had my United Way vest on. It didn’t matter. ... The VNA is running low on gloves and the mission is running out of gloves to serve food.”
Every day has brought new challenges as local social service agencies adjust to the constantly changing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rutland County Mutual Aid, a volunteer group that formed just over a week ago to help people who were self-quarantining, has essentially abandoned their original mission of making grocery runs, instead referring people who need that sort of help to local agencies. Organizer Tabitha Moore said that with tightening social distancing recommendations, it seemed as if there were better places to direct the energy of volunteers.
“For example, this morning Marisa Kiefaber and I spent the morning taking apart all of the home kits from the refugee resettlement program, breaking them down and making a spreadsheet,” Moore said.
The kits were designed to get refugee families started with household essentials, but were virtually all left unused after resettlement from Syria was effectively ended in early 2017. Moore said the spreadsheet listing items from the kits is being distributed to local agencies.
“They’re professionals,” she said. “They know how to handle all of it.”
Moore said several volunteers were working with Rutland Regional Medical Center to sew protective masks, following instructions made available by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“These are the kinds of things we can do that adhere to the every-increasingly strict social distancing,” Moore said.
Hover said that with the exception of Meals on Wheels, which has put out a call for volunteers that a number of people from the Mutual Aid group answered, most agencies need money more than they need volunteers right now.
“We’ve maxed out what we’re supposed to spend,” she said, noting that they burned through a $25,000 emergency fund within a week. “Anybody who wants to help us purchase things would be great.”
Hover said housing and food were the chief concerns at the moment, and she was on the verge of securing 89 units of isolation housing, for which she will then have to figure out the logistics of getting food to them. Toward that end, she said they are looking at a partnership with Castleton University’s food services. She also said the empty campuses at College of St. Joseph and Green Mountain College may be pressed into service.
“It’s like a pretzel right now,” she said. “Every day creates a new hole you have to fill.”
Castleton State University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College will not resume on-site classes in April, as originally planned, and will continue remote classes through the end of the spring semester, according to a letter to students posted this week by Vermont State College System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding.
Castleton has canceled this year’s graduation ceremony, according to Karen Scolforo, president of the university.
Spaulding’s letter addressed classes, residence halls and refunds.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve rapidly, the chancellor’s office and the (Vermont State College System, or VSCS) presidents have made a series of difficult decisions that will have a great impact on the remainder of the spring 2020 semester,” he wrote.
The letter notes that the Vermont Department of Public Safety and Vermont Emergency Management have made a request of college officials that they prepare for the possibility of using one or more of the residence halls and other facilities at each of the residential campuses to accommodate overflow or surge relating to COVID-19.
“To the extent we are not using our residential facilities, they can be of critical use to our neighboring communities during this crisis. They need us to help our neighboring communities see the pandemic through,” Spaulding said.
In addition to the cancellation of on-campus classes, the letter stated dorms will not reopen this semester.
Spaulding said VSCS officials understand some students may not have an immediate alternative to living on campus and the individual schools will work with those students to provide emergency options for housing.
“All off-campus students should also seriously consider returning home as soon as possible,” the letter stated.
The change in classes doesn’t affect Community College of Vermont, where administrators already had decided to complete the semester using online classes.
Students were asked to “act without delay to arrange removal of belongings from the residence halls.”
Details on the process, dates and times are expected to come from each school’s department of residence life at each. Spaulding asked students not to return to campus until they receive instructions.
“Please be aware that if belongings from residence halls are not removed in a timely fashion, they may be packed up and moved without further permission. Such moving will be at the student’s risk,” the letter stated.
Spaulding pointed out there may be other state orders that cause the plan set on Monday to be altered.
The letter addressed refunds for room and board.
Billing adjustments will be issued for room and board at a pro rata rate, dating back to the day they left the college. The refund should be received within 90 days of the student removing their belongings.
Each college or university will provide information on who to contact with any refund questions. Spaulding noted the timing and criteria could change if Gov. Phil Scott issues additional directives.
According to the letter, decisions are still being made about graduation, commencement ceremonies and the awarding of degrees.
However, Scolforo at Castleton said in a letter to students there, the decision had already been made.
“We want to celebrate your success, and we do not want you to miss out completely on this tradition. We plan to offer a separate ceremony for 2020 graduates in the spring of 2021. I am so sorry to share this news, as I recognize how important celebrating your significant accomplishment is to you and your families. I hope that you are able to find ways to mark this moment until we are able to join together in your honor,” she wrote.
Spaulding acknowledged the gravity of the update he was providing.
“I recognize that we are asking a great deal of you all. COVID-19 is unprecedented and with it come extraordinary decisions for students across Vermont, the United States, and the world,” Spaulding wrote.
The full letter can be read online at www.vsc.edu/covid-19-update-chancellor-vsc-community-march-24-2020
Report of an employee at the Newport jail testing positive for COVID-19 has led the American Civil Liberties Union to call for release of as many inmates as possible to avoid widespread outbreak of the virus among prison population. A3