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Health Commissioner: Vermont COVID-19 Cases 'Approaching A Plateau'

In Isle La Motte, a sign reminds visitors that, under Gov. Phil Scott's executive order, state visitors must self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering Vermont. The order now extends through May 15. Gov. Scott today offered an update on COVID-19 in Vt.
Matt Smith
In Isle La Motte, a sign reminds visitors that, under Gov. Phil Scott's executive order, state visitors must self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering Vermont. The order now extends through May 15. Gov. Scott today offered an update on COVID-19 in Vt.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Monday that the COVID-19 outbreak in Vermont could be "approaching a plateau," and that transmission of the virus in the general public has remained relatively low.

The state on Monday reported 21 new cases, bringing the tally to 748 cases, and 28 total deaths. It was the second straight day that new reported cases were at levels not seen since the beginning of the outbreak in Vermont.

For the latest data regarding COVID-19 in Vermont and guidance about how to interpret it, head here.

Levine noted that most new cases of the virus have been occurring in closed settings, like nursing homes, elder living facilities and prisons.

"The number of new cases every day is getting smaller and it's leveling off," Levine said during Gov. Phil Scott's thrice-weekly press conference on April 13. "We seem to be approaching a plateau. We will see if that is a sustained phenomenon, or a just a trend for several days. We are, in the general population of Vermont, not recording major outbreaks or spikes in our data."

Scott, who on Friday extended his "Stay Home, Stay Safe," executive order until May 15, said Vermont is on track to avoid previously modeled projections that hospitals could see two to three times more COVID-19 patients at a given time than there are beds available. He called Vermonters' cooperation with his orders a "selfless gift" to vulnerable populations, and suggested he would announce modifications to restrictions this week.

Questions about Vermont's modeling for COVID-19? Head here.

However, he cautioned that the pandemic is far from over.

"While we've seen a flattening of the curve, we still don’t know if we've reached the peak," Scott said.

The governor again began to hint at a plan to gradually reopen the state.

"We will open up the economic spigot a quarter turn at a time," Scott said. "Many just want to get this over with right now. And others are worried we will move too quickly. I will continue to act based on... data and science."

Scott suggested that, when he does begin to slowly reverse closures of some businesses, he would require workers to wear masks.

The governor said he would not be swayed by any possible pressure from President Donald Trump for states to re-open. Trump tweeted on Monday that the "decision to open up the states" lies with him, not governors.

Scott, who has routinely flouted Trump and did not vote for the president in the recent Republican state primary, said he would make up his own mind.

"We're going to do everything we can here in our state to protect Vermonters in the way we've been doing," Scott said. "It didn’t take federal action to spur us into action, and it's not going to be the federal government to determine when we take steps [to open ] here in Vermont. I want people to get back to work, but to pick an arbitrary date is irresponsible. It may give people a sense of hope, but if we have a false start ... and everything gets out of control, there's going to be a lack of confidence in government. We want to make sure we're doing it for the right reasons, and in a responsible way.”

Serologic testing

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine also said that a working group established by the Department of Health is working this week to identify the best serologic testing tool for use in Vermont. 

"What is serologic testing? It is testing one's blood to see if there are antibodies — in this case, to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the illness," Levine said. "It implies that you have been infected with the coronavirus, whether you had an illness that you could clearly state was that illness, or perhaps you were asymptomatic and received the infection being out and around in society but really had no knowledge that it had happened."

Levine said his department is especially concerned with selecting a test that yields consistently accurate results and that the working group is expected to announce their findings on April 16.

"Serologic testing is clearly going to be an important part of our future strategy," Levine said.

"As we enter this plateau phase now, and hopefully, a deceleration phase to follow, it will be more important to assess who has antibodies to the coronavirus," Levine said. 

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He said that as time progresses, accurate serologic testing could offer health officials valuable insight into the prevalence of COVID-19 in the general population. He also said it will be advantageous to know who may have immunity to the virus.

"We don't know yet what immunity will mean. We know that other coronaviruses that have affected humans, one can get repetetively throughout their life," Levine said. "We don't know what that means with regards to this coronavirus."

Levine emphasized that at this point in the pandemic, it is important for the department to know who is infected with the virus and may be spreading it, and that conventional testing for infections will continue.

Additional testing at residential living facilities

State officials said that while rates of transmission of COVID-19 within the general population remain relatively low, they are keeping a close eye on the state's residential facilities — a few of which have seen outbreaks.

For an update regarding the state's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 within Vermont's prison system, head here.

Over the weekend, the Department of Health conducted "major testing" at Decker Tower out of "an abundance of caution." Decker Tower is a senior living facility owned and operated by the Burlington Housing Authority 

Sec. of Human Services Mike Smith said that two residents of the facility have died in the last two days. One death was not COVID-19 related.  However, Smith said the state is investigating the other to determine if it was due to COVID-19.

"That fact coupled with a self-reported COVID-19 case in that facility has led us to the conclusion that we needed to begin testing of the entire facility and we did that on Easter," Smith said. The health department tested 139 residents on Easter and testing continued on Monday. 

Smith also reported that testing began on Monday of all staff and residents at the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington. An employee at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 on March 15 and subsequently self-quarantined, reports The Bennington Banner.

"That was March 15, so obviously it is past the 14-day mark, in terms of what is going on, but out of an abundance of caution, today we are beginning testing of that entire facility as well. We will let you know the results as we find them out," Smith said.

Find an up-to-date list of answers to FAQs regarding COVID-19 compiled by VPR reporters, here.

Copyright 2020 Vermont Public Radio

Mark Davis has spent more than a decade working as a reporter in Vermont, focusing on both daily and long-form stories. Most recently, he worked for five years at Seven Days, the alt-weekly in Burlington, where he won national awards for his criminal justice reporting. Before that, he spent nine years at the Valley News, where won state and national awards for his coverage of the criminal justice system, Topical Storm Irene, and other topics. He has also served as a producer and editor for the Rumblestrip podcast. He graduated from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Abagael is a digital producer at VPR
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