MONTPELIER — Vermonters should prepare for more restrictions intended to encourage social distancing, Gov. Phil Scott said Monday.
While he declined to call any next steps the government might take a “shelter in place” order, Scott said Vermonters should expect additional steps “very, very soon.” It is not, he said, a question of if, but when.
Scott’s remarks came as the number of Vermonters who have died from COVID -19 reached five and the number who have tested positive for the disease reached 75.
COVID-19, a disease caused by a new form of coronavirus, is highly contagious. While about 80 percent of those who exposed to the virus will have mild or even no symptoms, for the elderly and those with other health conditions it can prove fatal.
“The precautions we’re taking are to protect our neighbors and loved ones who face greater risks,” said Scott. “We’re going to have to do a lot more before this is over.”
The three new fatalities were all connected to the Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said 14 patients and one staff member at the center have tested positive for COVID-19.
State health officials have been to the center. “We found no fault in their infection control process and procedures,” said Levine. He said some patients who were at the facility for short-term rehabilitation may be allowed to go home soon.
All staff are having their temperature taken before being allowed in to the facility and have been told to stay home if they are sick.
On Monday, Scott issued an order directing businesses and non-profits to find ways for staff to work from home as much as possible.
The goal is to keep people away from one another and to keep them from infecting one another. The fewer people who become ill at any one time, the better the health care system will be able to care for them. The virus has a long incubation period so people may have and spread it for days before getting sick themselves. Some people who have — and spread — the virus will never show symptoms, making it much harder to contain.
“This is really an unprecedented time,” said Levine. “We’ve asked Vermonters to change everything about their lives.”
Levine said he had to run errands on Sunday and witnessed people keeping an appropriate distance apart. “I do see remarkable change in a very short period of time,” he said.
One place where things are changing is grocery stores. Erin Sigrist, President of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, spoke at the conference. She said there is ample supply of food and other necessities.
“We ask that you don’t hoard. We ask that you shop for two weeks, not two months,” said Sigrist. When someone buys more than they need, they limit their neighbors’ access to the things they need, she pointed out.
Grocery and other stores have created special hours for seniors and others who are at highest risk from COVID-19. They are also taking steps to minimize the risk of exposure for customers and staff, including additional cleaning, plexiglass barriers and not providing some services such as cut to order service at the deli counter.
“Grocery stores, especially, are doing everything they can to protect employees and the public,” Sigrist said.
Scott pointed out that in this situation the definition of first responder has expanded to include workers in grocery stores and custodians.
The governor has ordered the National Guard and the state’s medical surge team to stand up the first of three medical surge sites. “While we hope we don’t have to use them, we must be prepared for this possibility,” Scott said.
Pointing to the orders he has issued closing schools and some businesses, Scott said, “I want Vermonters to now prepare for even more difficult measures.”
The state’s response, he said, has been measured, with all decisions based on data.
Much of the governor’s remarks focused on urging Vermonters to take care of one another and look for creative solutions to problems.
“This is the time to tap into your creative spirit, which is in the DNA of every Vermonter,” said Scott. “We can unite to help those in need.”
The number of those in need is increasing rapidly as businesses layoff workers, noted Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Welch said he spoke with the Farmhouse Group, which went from having 250 employees last week to four. Similarly, a restaurant he frequents has laid off 14 people.
Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin has said the unemployment rate could reach 20 percent, according to Welch.
Welch said he supports expanding access to unemployment insurance to include contract workers and the self-employed, as well as increasing the amount of benefits. There is also discussion about suspending debt payments for three months so that people who lost their jobs don’t have their credit destroyed.
To support businesses, Welch said he favors loans that become grants when used to meet payroll. By keeping employees on the payroll, businesses will be able to reopen once the crisis has passed, he said.
With hospitals unable to perform elective surgeries, in part because of shortage of medical supplies, Welch said they are losing money rapidly and need federal assistance. States also need assistance, he added. The federal government “has to be the banker of last resort,” Welch said.
“Just like government needs to do more, we need more of you to do more,” Scott said. “We need each of you to find a way to help, to contribute.”
He encouraged everyone to “stand united as Vermonters.”
“We’re going to get though this, not because of anyone action or anyone person, but because of each of you,” he concluded.