Vermont has reinstated stringent hospital visitation protocols and will make testing more available to the general population this week amid a record number of new coronavirus cases.
Gov. Phil Scott's administration outlined the developments during a press conference Tuesday, projecting a bleak outlook for the coming weeks as the virus continues to creep through the state.
"We're seeing rapid growth, and this growth is not because of tourists," Scott said. "Not because of restaurants. Not because of gyms. Not because of schools. It's because adults continue to get together with other adults — multiple households, inside and outside — in situations usually involving alcohol where they stop taking precautions."
The state reported 95 new cases Tuesday, a day after setting a single-day record of 122. The seven-day average has now surpassed 90, and officials forecast a 50 percent case growth over the next six weeks.
In response to the surge, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said he has ordered hospitals to suspend volunteer programs and reimpose strict visitor policies from the spring to cut down on the possibility of transmissions. "No visitors are permitted at this time, until further notice, with some limited exceptions," he said, such as for child patients and end-of-life care.
Smith said the state has also requested a waiver from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to restrict visitations to eldercare facilities. Though those facilities are particularly vulnerable to the virus, CMS regulations say states can only impose visitor restrictions in the event of a positive case, or if the county in which they are located has a positivity rate beyond 10 percent.
"I have a disagreement with CMS' position, because [at] a county positivity rate of 10 percent, you have significant chance of introducing coronavirus to the facility," Smith said.
In the meantime, the state is working to contain an outbreak at the Rutland Health and Rehab Center, where 26 residents and 12 staff have tested positive, Smith said. The state is also responding to an outbreak at the Four Seasons Care Home, an assisted living facility in Northfield, where 17 residents and 3 staffers have been infected to date.
"We have reached out to all our long-term care facilities to recommend more frequent surveillance testing of staff — weekly or biweekly — in order to get ahead of any outbreak risk at each individual facility," Smith said.
The state has also ramped up testing for the general population, with the hopes of soon having the capacity to perform 30,000 tests weekly.
State officials say it will take at least another week — and possibly several — to determine how impactful Scott's latest restrictions have been on slowing the spread of the virus. Last Friday, Scott closed bars, shut down recreational sports leagues and banned multi-household gatherings in an effort to cut down on the main sources of recent transmission. Officials have linked more than 70 percent of cases associated with outbreaks since October 1 back to private gatherings.
Scott has tried to strike an understanding tone throughout the pandemic, even when speaking about those who feel he is overstepping his authority in enacting restorations.
But on Tuesday, his patience had worn thin. Addressing "skeptics," Scott said people who "ignore the science or choose not to believe it" are selfishly putting their wants over the health and safety of others.
"The number of people in hospitals is growing across the country because some care more about what they want to do rather than what they need to do to help protect others," Scott said.
He then went a step further, singling out people who purport to be standing up for individual freedoms when defying health mandates such as mask wearing and gathering bans.
"Skeptics are right: They can do what they want," he said. "But please, don't call it patriotic. Don't pretend it's about freedom. Because real patriots serve and sacrifice for all, whether they agree with them or not. Patriots also stand up and fight when our nation's health and security is threatened. And right now, our country and way of life is being attacked by this virus — not the protections we put in place."
Scott then switched his tone to that of the empathic leader, addressing anyone who feels frustrated, anxious and saddened at the prospect of not seeing friends or family over the holidays.
"I get it," he said. "So if you need to take it out on someone, send it my way. I can take it. But what I can't take is seeing this continue to grow, because it's putting our health care system, our economy and many lives at risk."