MONTPELIER — More than 3,000 Vermonters will be able to have some limited visitation with loved ones beginning this Friday.
The state is set to begin allowing two people at a time to visit residents of long-term care facilities, provided they stay outside, Gov. Phil Scott announced Wednesday.
Roughly half of Vermont’s 55 COVID-19 deaths have been people living in long-term care facilities, according to Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. Two facilities in Vermont experienced outbreaks fairly early in the pandemic.
“One of the most difficult decisions we took was closing our long-term care facilities to visitors,” Scott said. “There is an emotional price paid by these residents and their families.”
Scott also thanked the staffs at these facilities, saying he knew they had gone above and beyond to provide “a little extra care” to seniors unable to visit with their families.
Long-term care facilities in Vermont have been closed to visitors since mid-March.
As with other steps to reopen the state, officials will be monitoring the results of this change, the governor said.
The state is also lifting the recommendation that people over 65 stay home, replacing it with a recommendation that seniors practice social distancing.
“Age is a risk factor,” Levine said. Seniors are the age group hardest hit by COVID-19.
Levine also had some advice on how those over 65 can resume socializing safely.
“Choose outdoor settings over indoor settings,” he advised. The coronavirus which causes COVID-19 is spread in respiratory droplets released when people who are infected breathe, speak, cough or sneeze. Those droplets linger longer inside than outside, Levine explained.
“When indoors pay attention to the size of the space that you’re in,” Levine said. He recommended looking at how may people are present, whether or not they are keeping physical distance and if they’re wearing a mask. “Those around us make a critical difference,” he said.
“Choose activities that don’t require close contact,” he recommended. However, he did not recommend singing, which releases lots of respiratory droplets and has been correlated with spreading the disease.
Visit with just a few trusted friends, Levine advised, saying, “keep your social circle small.”
“If you’re considering traveling beyond our state, most authorities are saying ‘maybe you want to think twice about that,’” Levine said. “Traveling does still present a serious added risk.”
When traveling, he suggested looking to see how many cases there are in the area to be visited and whether the number of cases is rising or falling.
“We’re all looking forward to a time when COVID is not a primary concern,” Levine said. “That time is not now.”
New residents at long-term care facilities will be tested for COVID-19 if they are coming from a hospital. All new residents will be quarantined and the staff looking after them will not be part of the “common flow of the entire facility,” Levine said.
Hospital visitation is also being allowed, with different requirements depending on the level of care the patient is receiving.
COVID trends The state has now gone four days without a new case, following an outbreak in Winooski that included some residents of Burlington and other neighboring communities.
None of the 83 cases associated with the outbreak were hospitalized and there were no deaths connected to the outbreak.
The state continues to monitor those who were identified as possibly exposed through contact tracing and 13 of those identified through contact tracing eventually became COVID positive, Levine said.
“We proved in Winooski, or at least I think we did, that we can handle something of this magnitude,” Scott said, pointing to the state’s testing and contact tracing capacity.
Scott said he continues to look daily at what is happening in neighboring states.
“The numbers are coming down drastically,” Scott said, pointing to New York and the Boston area in particular. “That’s good news for us… Pretty soon we’ll be able to open up all of the northeast.”
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” the governor added.
But, he added, that is why it’s crucial to get immediate assistance to Vermont businesses, so they can hang in there until the state is able to open up its hospitality industry.
The legislature and relief funds
Vermont received nearly $1.25 billion in federal aid to use for COVID-19 relief, much of which has been earmarked for specific uses ranging from government functions to supporting the health care system.
Scott has previously proposed spending up to $400 million of those funds on a two-phase economic recovery plan.
Legislators, meanwhile, have only approved spending up to $93 million on initiatives from Scott’s recovery proposal.
The state is facing a budget shortfall of around $300 million. Scott suggested legislators want to hang onto the funds in case the federal government changes the rules attached to the funds, allowing the state to use the money to fill its budget gap.
Scott called that approach shortsighted.
The foundation of Vermont’s economy is crumbling, he said. “It’s essential we try and fix it.”
Fifty-thousand Vermonters remain on unemployment, according to the Scott administration. If businesses go under, Scott said, Vermont would “have this systemic unemployment gap.”
If the state doesn’t act quickly to preserve businesses, the effects could be felt for years, Scott warned.