Gov. Phil Scott speaking at a press conference on Friday
Vermont officials said Monday that the number of new coronavirus cases appears to be leveling off thanks to continued social distancing measures.
"We seem to be approaching, if you will, a plateau," Health Commissioner Mark Levine said during a gubernatorial briefing, explaining that Vermont's number of new daily cases continues to fall. "We'll see if that is a sustained phenomenon, or just a trend over several days."
Three days ago, Vermont officials released new modeling data that offered the most encouraging look yet at the state's ability to weather the crisis. The rate at which cases are doubling — a key stat used to determine the extent of the outbreak — has slowed to more than a week.
That trend has continued, with the Vermont Health Department reporting 71 cases and three new deaths in the last three days.
Levine said the latest data show that Gov. Phil Scott's orders aimed at slowing the spread of the virus appear to be working. "We wouldn't be seeing this type of experience in the general community if the strategies that have been employed today were not successful," Levine said, commending the public for following the guidance.
While Vermont has avoided a large spike in cases in the overall population, several Green Mountain facilities that house vulnerable populations — namely, two Burlington nursing homes and a St. Albans correctional facility — have experienced large outbreaks.
In response, the Vermont Department of Health has started testing all people inside high-risk facilities that have at least one confirmed coronavirus case. Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Monday that the state is currently testing all residents at Decker Towers, a Burlington Housing Authority complex for seniors, and the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.
Smith said there were two recent deaths at Decker Towers: one not related to COVID-19 and another under investigation for the virus. Another person has self-reported that they have the illness. Nine staff and 139 residents were tested on Sunday, and the health department plans to continue testing at the facility Monday, Smith said.
The Bennington facility, meantime, has no current cases, Smith said. But one staff member tested positive on March 15 before self-isolating. And while more than two weeks have passed — a timeframe in which people who were exposed to the virus would typically start showing symptoms — Smith said the state is testing all 122 veterans and 200 staff members "out of an abundance of caution." He said the tests were being conducted on Monday and the results would be publicized "as we find them out."
Two Burlington nursing homes have stood as examples of how quickly the virus can spread among vulnerable populations. Nine residents of Burlington Health & Rehabilitation Center had died as of last week, its parent company reported. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Monday that another resident died over the weekend. And two more residents of Birchwood Terrace died over the weekend, bringing that home's toll to three, the mayor said.
Though the modeling data released last week showed that Vermont's hospitals should be able to withstand the weeks to come, officials continue to warn against complacency. They note that they are unsure whether Vermont has hit its peak, which is why Scott again urged Vermonters to stay the course on Monday.
"We will continue to watch the trend, and our hospital capacity, so as soon as we can begin to dial back some of these steps in a measured, responsible and safe manner, we will," Scott said.
Who has the final authority to reopen states like Vermont appears to be up for debate, however, at least in the White House. NBC News has reported that the Trump administration is eager to reopen the economy and hopes to do so by early May. And in a tweet sent out Monday morning, President Donald Trump insisted that it is well within his purview to tell states to relax orders aimed at keeping people home — a decision he said he will make in conjunction with governors.
Scott, meantime, has extended his stay-at-home order until May 15, a decision he has conceded will make it difficult for some people and businesses to get by.
"There's no one who wants to open up the economic spigot more than me," Scott said. "So we will do so just as quickly as we possibly can."
Asked how he would handle a call from Trump to reopen the state before he believes it's the right time, Scott said he would listen to advice from health experts — not the federal government — when deciding Vermont's future. To do otherwise, he said, would be "irresponsible."
"It might give some people hope," Scott said of picking an arbitrary date. "But if we have a false start — if all of a sudden we open up the spigot, and people go back to work, and then all of a sudden everything spikes and gets out of control, and we have to take and shut the spigot off again — there's going to be a lack of confidence in government."
"We want to make sure that we're doing it for the right reasons," he added.