VERMONT — U.S. Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) was joined by Vermont Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan in a town hall meeting by telephone hosted by AARP on Tuesday afternoon to respond to questions from constituents about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Welch reiterated points made at a previous press conference in Barre on Monday about social distancing: the practice of intentionally avoiding physical proximity to others in order to minimize the spread of the virus.
"Social distancing is very hard, but it's the best way to contribute to public health," said Welch. "We need to reduce the number of cases—what we call 'flattening the curve'—to not overwhelm the folks on the front line."
Rep. Welch also spoke on the future of HR 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives over the weekend in a bipartisan landslide and is currently awaiting a vote from the Senate. "The Senate will pass it," Welch told a caller concerned about the bill's chances, "but in a reduced form."
The version of HR 6201 passed by the House provided up to 12 weeks of paid medical and family leave for anyone who had contracted COVID-19 or was caring for or living with a family member that had. Welch reported that the Senate would be amending that provision to only grant paid leave to individuals who had contracted the virus or were caring for a child that had.
The change mostly affects adults living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, whose caregivers may not be able to take time off from work to provide them with care while practicing social distancing.
"I'm disappointed about that," Rep. Welch told listeners. "It'll be passed, but not in as good a form as I'd like."
Other provisions in the bill, such as making testing for COVID-19 infection free even to those without insurance and allocating $250 million dollars to supporting food programs, are expected to remain.
Republican Vice President Mike Pence voiced his support for the bill shortly before it was passed in the House. Welch expects President Donald Trump to sign the Senate version of the bill into law this week.
Dolan largely fielded questions from callers regarding what actions they could take to avoid getting sick or potentially spreading the virus to others. The two most important precautions, she said, are frequent hand washing and social distancing.
"If you're staying at home, you should still be washing your hands with hot water and soap a few times a day," Dolan said. "It is the most effective strategy for preventing the spread of the virus. If you're traveling, you should do it a couple of times an hour."
Hot water and soap are more effective than hand sanitizer at preventing COVID-19 from spreading. The outer layer of the virus, known as the "viral envelope," is held together by a "lipid bilayer" that is damaged by heat and soap, making it difficult for the virus to survive.
"Hand sanitizer is the second-best thing," said Dolan, "but you should only use it if you don't have access to soap and hot water."
Dolan told callers that wiping down surfaces with household cleaner is also important at preventing the spread of the virus, and recommended doing so once a day, and stepping up the frequency for those who are not practicing social distancing. Dolan informed listeners that studies have demonstrated that COVID-19 can survive for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours on a hard, nonporous surface.
Dolan said that symptoms usually manifest within 3-7 days of exposure, but that in some cases it may take as long as 14 days to show symptoms, and some people—like actor Idris Elba, a high-profile case—can be contagious without showing any symptoms at all.
Even those in low-risk groups, like young adults with healthy immune symptoms, should be practicing social distancing to avoid transmitting the virus to more vulnerable demographics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended on Monday night that people avoid gathering in groups of ten or more.
"I'm 66 years old and I have a heart condition, my son has diabetes and is immunocompromised," one caller told Dolan, "is it safe for me to buy groceries?"
Dolan recommended to the caller that she ask someone to pick up groceries for her and drop them off at her home to minimize her own exposure to the virus. People with compromised immune systems and seniors are among those at the highest risk for serious illness—and even death—due to COVID-19.
This same caller followed up her question by asking Dolan if it was safe to continue eating fresh produce.
"We're encouraging people to continue eating fruits and vegetables to keep their immune systems strong," she answered, but reminded listeners to thoroughly wash their produce and to wash their hands after handling it. Dolan recommended washing one's hands after handling mail and newspapers as well.
One question concerned whether or not those who had contracted the virus would develop immunity.
"COVID-19 just hasn't been around long enough for us to find out," said Dolan. "We're currently assuming you may have some resistance or immunity if you contract the virus and recover, but we don't know for sure."
Another caller asked if she would be able to make a long-planned trip to Missouri at the end of the month. "I'm not going to be staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant," she told Dolan and Welch, "but I'm 77 years old."
Dolan offered reiterated that interstate travel is discouraged at this time. Welch did not rule out the possibility of the federal government stepping in and prohibiting it in the future.
Greg Marchildon, State Director of AARP Vermont and moderator of the call, seconded Dolan's advice to avoid leaving the state. "We're encouraging our older members to stay as close to home as possible," he said.
Dolan and Welch both closed the call by emphasizing that, while practicing social distancing, people should make efforts to keep their minds healthy.
"Call your friends and loved ones on the phone," Dolan recommended, "listen to music, exercise in your home if you can. For some, the panic and anxiety could be worse than actually contracting the virus."
She noted that short walks without contacting others and avoiding surfaces like park benches are generally low-risk and can help relieve stress and anxiety. She did emphasize, however, that those with mild symptoms such as a cough or a mild fever should stay home whenever possible.
"We have to be socially distant, but it's important that we not be emotionally distant," said Welch in his closing remarks. "Call your friends and family, check in."
Welch also indicated that Congress' biggest job right now is in supporting those who are vulnerable. "Getting testing equipment back here and getting paid family leave are important for keeping body and soul together. Stress and anxiety are hardest on those who are living paycheck to paycheck."
The Representative said that he found the questions from callers, almost all of which were about preventative measures and caring for others, to be inspiring. "I find it indicative of how Vermonters are cooperating. When we follow these guidelines, we're making a contribution to the public health."
"We're seeing everyone step up, not just in state government but in our communities," said Dolan. "I've never been more proud to serve Vermont."