Health Commissioner Mark Levine talking Thursday about coronavirus preparations
The State of Vermont is prepared for the coronavirus when —not if — it arrives.
That was the message from Gov. Phil Scott, who assembled members of his cabinet at a press conference Thursday to discuss the state's response to the infectious disease.
“Please know we are ready to respond if it does spread, because we have to be realistic,” Scott said at the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. “Given the global and national cases we’re seeing, it’s only a matter of time.”
Vermont still has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus that originated in China in December and has since infected 90,000 people worldwide. The Vermont Department of Health lab this week has tested five specimens from Vermont patients, all of which came back negative. Seven more are in progress, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
Levine said the state will test patients who have coronavirus symptoms — fever, dry cough and shortness of breath — and have traveled to affected areas or had contact with someone who did. Previously, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had only recommended testing those patients if they were sick enough to be hospitalized, Levine said.
Levine stressed that hospitals across Vermont have the capacity and equipment to handle an outbreak. The University of Vermont Health Network has a stockpile of respirators and masks and can convert hospital rooms into intensive care units if necessary, Levine said. The state has also distributed half of its reserve of medical supplies to hospitals across Vermont, he said.
Still, Levine said, "hospitalization is not going to be the most common outcome" if someone contracts COVID-19.
"While we do have to be concerned about capacity and all of these issues, remember that well over 80 percent of individuals are going to have mild or more moderate illness," he said.
Education Secretary Dan French said his agency has already advised school districts to disinfect frequently touched items in school buildings, such as drinking fountains and door handles. The agency will distribute recommended protocols for educators.
“School closures can be an important tool to slow the outbreak of the virus … but are only implemented in severe outbreaks,” French said. “We do not believe school closures are necessary at this time.”
Vermont higher education institutions, too, have begun planning for an outbreak. The University of Vermont on Tuesday told faculty to prepare for “remote instruction” in case students or professors need to self-isolate. Students will be told to bring their textbooks home over spring break, which begins March 9. The university is also pulling study-abroad students out of Italy, the student newspaper the Vermont Cynic reported.
“There is no single alternative instructional approach that will work in all cases,” provost Patricia Prelock wrote in a March 3 memo. “Please bring your creativity, ingenuity, and the full use of ... technology to bear on this challenge so we can provide our students with the best educational experience possible in the midst of what may be difficult circumstances.”
Middlebury College is requiring students who travel abroad to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy to quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus. The same rule applies to students who live with someone who traveled to those countries, according to a memo distributed Thursday by the college's office of student affairs.
The state has a voluntary self-isolation policy for travelers, but Levine said the state could enforce the rule “if we needed to.”
“We’ve had a tremendous level of cooperation from Vermonters,” he added.
The state is currently monitoring 170 Vermonters who have no symptoms but have traveled to affected areas. Twenty people have completed the monitoring period with no signs of the virus.
Health officials also offered a number of tips to avoid contracting the virus:
Wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available.
Don't buy a mask unless you're sick.
Avoid handshakes and hugs.
"The custom of handshaking is probably going to fade away as a result of this crisis," Levine said.