Vermont has announced that four new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed within the last 24 hours, bringing the state's total to 12.
Three of the four new cases do not appear to be travel-related, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine. That's an indication of community transmission, Levine said during a press conference Monday morning.
"And that is why implementing these social distancing measures is a powerful public health tool," he said.
One of the four new patients — a woman in her 60s from Bennington County — was being hospitalized at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. The three others were self-isolating at home. They include a man in his 60s from Orange County, a man in his 30s from Chittenden County, and a woman in her 30s who is also from Chittenden County.
On Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended postponing or canceling any events with more than 50 people.
Gov. Phil Scott, who declared a state of emergency on Friday, had initially banned any nonessential gatherings over 250. Citing the CDC guidance, Scott said Monday that he has amended his executive order to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, or 50 percent of an establishment's occupancy — whichever is less.
"Every action that we've taken thus far has been based on science, data and the guidance of experts," Scott said at Monday's press conference, during which he explained why he decided to close schools effective Wednesday.
Scott and his health commissioner repeatedly emphasized that the order, issued Sunday, was not the result of pressure from parents, despite the fact that both officials had stressed on Friday that it was still too early to make the move.
Levine said the presence of community spread indicates that Vermont is at "precisely the time when school closure has been shown to be an effective public health strategy."
"We are painfully aware of the disruptions and social isolation that will result from this," Levine said. "These are extremely difficult times for everyone, and they will not soon be over.
"But all of the actions that Gov. Scott is taking, together with what each of us individually can do, will help slow the spread, will mean fewer people will become severely ill, fewer deaths, fewer opportunities to overwhelm the health care system," he continued. "That is our ultimate goal."
Scott has called on schools to help the state offer childcare for first responders and health care workers so that they can do their jobs. The governor said Monday that he hopes those plans would be in place within the next two days.
Administration officials also spoke about how districts will maintain learning opportunities while schools are closed, which Scott's order mandates. Deputy Education Secretary Heather Bouchey said plans will vary depending on the community. For example, some schools will likely be able to “seamlessly” move to fully online platforms so that students can continue learning remotely, she said. Other schools — particularly ones in rural areas without reliable internet access — may need to adopt hybrid systems that include take-home learning packets.
“We’re going to be creative,” Scott said.
Vermont joined more than 20 other states that have so far announced plans to close schools. Scott has also enacted several other key mitigation strategies. He's restricted access to long-term eldercare facilities, limited out-of-state travel by state employees and, on Monday, encouraged private businesses to help employees work remotely when possible.
Other states have enacted stricter rules in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. On Monday morning, governors from a group of three states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — announced jointly that they would be closing bars, gyms and casinos while requiring that restaurants offer only takeout.
Scott warned that "additional measures are inevitable" in Vermont, as well, though he did not specify what those might be.
"I want Vermonters to know we're continuously evaluating other mitigation steps and will continue to communicate as they are put into place," Scott said. "It's important to remember in times of crisis, we all need to make sacrifices."
Officials also shared updates on the state’s testing program. Levine said 420 people have been tested so far, leaving the state with about 400 test kits left.
Scott said he has been in talks with the federal government about getting more sent to Vermont. The Health Department was also working with the University of Vermont Medical Center and its medical college to secure supplies necessary for test kits. Levine said that should allow the department to maintain its current testing levels for now.
“We're trying to ensure we don't overtax the resources of our health care system,” Levine said. Asked how many cases he anticipates at the height of the outbreak in Vermont, the health commissioner replied, “That would literally be an impossible answer to give right now.”