Gov. Phil Scott said on Friday that Vermont will remain in a state of emergency for at least another month, and he moved to extend orders aimed at keeping more people home amid positive signs that social distancing measures are curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Scott first announced the move in a press release that indicated he was also extending his stay-at-home order and prolonging bar and restaurant closures until at least May 15. Those orders were set to expire next week.
Speaking at a press briefing Friday morning, the governor warned that the state doesn’t yet know whether the virus will still spike. But he said modeling data suggests the spread of the virus is slowing down, meaning it's important that the state doesn't "let up yet."
“I know how disappointing this is to many, as some were hoping that we could magically flip a switch and go back to normal. There’s no one who wishes that could be more the case than me,” Scott said. “The fact is, the data shows what we're doing is really making a difference. Vermonters are literally saving hundreds of lives by staying home."
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Scott later said. “It’s just a very, very long tunnel.”
Scott's new order also contains direction for various state agencies. The Department of Motor Vehicles must extend vehicle inspections due in April for up to 60 days. Lodging operators can accept reservations for stays and events starting on June 15.
Interim Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington also provided an update on the state's race to process a tsunami of unemployment claims, which now exceed 70,000 in the last month. On Friday, Harrington announced that the department is asking people to follow an alphabetized schedule to spread out the demand. That schedule can be found on the department's website.
The governor’s announcement on extending the orders, which he said was based on advice from health experts, seemed inevitable after state officials released modeling data last week that showed Vermont's cases peak in late April or early May. Officials updated those projections Friday, detailing how existing mitigation measures have already slowed the expected spread of the virus.
“The data more clearly points to the fact that the sacrifices Vermonters are making and continue to make are positively impacting our COVID-19 experience,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation. “Our recent forecast indicates we are trending toward a milder experience during April than was initially anticipated, with new confirmed cases still expected to peak over the next two to four weeks.”
Pieciak warned that these trends can “turn on a dime” if Vermonters relent and said the “worst is still ahead of us.” But he said the updated forecast suggests Vermont hospitals will be able to withstand the weeks to come, with the most likely scenarios showing the state will not run out of hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment at the peak of the crisis.
The models also show that the growth in new cases has gradually fallen.
“The governor's action today was absolutely necessary to ensure we continue on this positive trajectory,” Pieciak said.
Despite positive trends for the state as a whole, Vermont continues to experience concentrated outbreaks at facilities where vulnerable populations live in close quarters. Nearly 100 residents and staff members have so far been infected across two Queen City nursing homes: Birchwood Terrace and the Burlington Health & Rehabilitation Center. And mass testing at the Northwest State Correctional Facility this week revealed at least 29 inmates and eight guards now have the virus, with additional results expected later Friday.
In a letter sent to Scott on Friday morning, the state employees' union asked for mandatory testing of anyone who works or lives in 24-hour facilities such as these.
“We think you will agree that addressing this now could help prevent a serious problem down the road,” Vermont State Employee Association president Dave Bellini wrote.
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith poured cold water on that idea. Citing a lack of testing capacity, he said the state plans to universally test people at such facilities only if there is a confirmed case.
“Although we would like to test all Vermonters, we simply can't," Smith said at the press conference. "And frankly, it ... could give them a false sense of security, because this virus can strike at any time. You can test one day and be negative and then the next day be positive.”
Vermont has seen hundreds of cases since Scott first declared his state of emergency declaration a month ago. Figures released Friday showed 51 new positives, bringing the state’s total to 679 cases with 24 deaths.
State officials stressed they are far from declaring victory against the disease. But Friday’s presentation offered the most encouraging look yet at Vermont’s ability to weather the storm, a sense of optimism that was clear during Scott’s opening remarks.
Wishing Vermonters a happy Easter weekend, the governor recalled a recent “random act of kindness" and assured that "better days are coming."
“Sometimes you have to dig deep, and then you have to open up your eyes in order to see it," he said.
Moments later, he held up a piece of blue construction paper he received as a gift from a state police officer's 7-year-old son. Signed “Sully” and addressed to “the big guy," the letter read, “Keep going. You’re doing good.”