Mark Levine, 6-1-2020

Vermont health commissioner Mark Levine speaks with reporters during an early June press conference in Montpelier.

MONTPELIER — The state’s overall COVID-19 numbers remain low and Governor Phil Scott anticipates additional steps in the state’s reopening to happen this week and next.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that while the number of new cases in the state varies each day from the single digits to the low teens, there are currently no hospitalizations for COVID-19. The number of people who have died from the illness in Vermont is 56.

“We expect that if we continue to test at this capacity, we’ll find cases,” Levine said. “We’re not alarmed by the total number of cases we’ve been seeing per day.”

The state is continuing to follow the outbreak in the Winooski and Burlington areas, which now has 110 cases associated with it, Levine said. Some of those are people who recently tested positive and others were positive cases not previously connected to the outbreak.

In Rutland County, two adults have tested positive for the illness and the state is actively tracing and testing contacts there, as well as in Windham County where two adults and four children have tested positive. The state has set up pop up testing sites in both counties.

In “epidemiology, a great portion of it is detective work,” Levine said. In both counties the health department is still putting together information. The reason a lot of information hasn’t been released is “because we want to know what we’re talking about,” he said.

On Saturday, an inmate entering the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCC) tested positive for COVID-19. Although inmates should be quarantined upon arrival, “the inmate did have contact with staff and some other inmates, but not the general population,” Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said.

An investigation is being done to determine how that happened, he said.

In the Marble Valley Correctional Facility, where an inmate previously tested positive, all staff and inmates have tested negative for the coronavirus, said Smith. They will be retested next week.

Levine also reviewed the general state of the virus nationally and worldwide. “Though the sun is shining, the weather is hot, it’s summer vacation season… the novel coronavirus has failed to take notice of any of that,” he said.

While the rate of new cases in the northeast continues to decline, the south and west are still seeing additional cases, he noted. Ninety countries and half of the U.S. states reported growing case numbers. Twelve states reported their largest single day increases and internationally, the world as a whole hit a record for the largest number of new cases in a single day with 183,000.

“The demographic with the largest number of new cases is ages 18 to 44,” Levine said.

The increase is being attributed to Memorial Day gatherings and other large events, but not, he said, protests. From what he has observed, “protestors have great willingness to comply with public health guidance,” Levine said.

That guidance remains the same as it was previously. Levine calls it his four new rules for daily living:

  1. Stay home if ill.
  2. “Wash your hands like crazy.”
  3. Keep physically distant.
  4. Wear facial coverings.

“We are showing what our state and our citizens are truly capable of, but we can’t let up,” Levine said.

On the vaccine front, Levine said the level of optimism in the scientific community right now is “rare.” Several possible vaccines have reached stage two of testing and are preparing to enter stage three. While Levine said he doesn’t expect a vaccine by Thanksgiving, “we are at an advanced pace of vaccine development.”

Part of the good news is that the “spiky proteins” on the outer edge of the virus “make excellent antigens,” Levine said. Antigens are what cause the body’s immune system to respond to an infection. Vaccines work by causing the body to create an immune response to a weakened or dead version of a virus. Then when someone is exposed to the virus, they already have antibodies and their body is prepared to fight the illness.

The state already has a working group planning how a vaccine can be delivered once it’s available and what supplies, such as syringes and refrigeration, will be needed to inoculate Vermonters.

Levine revealed the state is also planning for a fall resurgence of the coronavirus and has been gathering supplies of personal protective equipment for just such an eventuality.

Reopening

On Friday, Scott announced additional steps in the state’s reopening. Restaurants may open to 50 percent capacity, provided they have 100 square feet for every person. Indoor events may include up to 75 people and outdoor events 150.

Scott said Monday that he hopes to have every sector open to 50 percent by July 1.

When asked if the outbreaks in states outside the Northeast might cause the state to slow or halt the reopening of its tourism industry, Scott said, “We hope that’s not the case, but we’ll do what we have to do to protect Vermonters.”

Neighboring states are continuing to see improvements and Scott said the administration will continue to expand the number of places in the Northeast people may visit from without quarantining for 14 days. Other states may be included in that expansion, he said.

“Those in drivable distance we want to encourage in any way we can to take advantage of our beautiful state,” Scott said.

There was an area of reopening where Scott had no answers — playgrounds. Because of the number of places kids touch on a playground and the challenges of cleaning them, the governor said he wasn’t certain when public playgrounds will be reopened.

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