Rep. Peter Welch, D - Vt., meets with St. Albans City officials, 2-5-2018

Rep. Peter Welch, D — Vt., meets with officials during a visit to St. Albans City in 2018.

During an AARP Vermont telephone town hall, one Vermonter on the call began to choke up as he conveyed the pain of not being able to hold his wife’s hand for the last eight weeks.

Since March 14, no visitors have been allowed to enter long-term care facilities in Vermont—but his wife is descending into dementia. “I am missing the last windows of her life,” said the caller, tears audible in his voice. “When can we start safe, outdoor, occasional visits of loved ones to residents in long-term care facilities?”

This was one of the stand-out questions asked at the May 20 town hall, with Rep. Peter Welch, State Health Commissioner Mark Levine, and Monica Hutt, Commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, answering questions from Vermonters, and discussing updates on federal action around the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening the state.

Welch opened the meeting by taking a step back to remember the trajectory of COVID-19 in Vermont over the last few months.

“It was four months ago yesterday, January 19, that the first case in the U.S. was recorded. So much has happened in that time,” said Welch, noting that 92,000 people have died from the virus.

As the growth of COVID-19 cases in Vermont has slowed, different sectors of the economy have gradually started to reopen. Welch noted that the economic response is going “to continue to be challenging,” but that more federal funds will be allocated to the healthcare system.

“The federal government has the fiscal flexibility and capacity to step in and try to throw a lifeline to folks. We will keep at it,” he said. “We have to err on the side of doing too much too soon rather than too little too late.”

Levine pointed to “Be Smart, Stay Safe,” the program Gov. Phil Scott has transitioned into following the stricter “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order from earlier in the pandemic, as a signal that life is headed towards some semblance of normal. With that said, he noted that older Vermonters remain one of the most at-risk categories of people likely to contract the virus. “Age is still an independent risk factor,” he said.

In describing the experiences of “free standing” Vermont seniors, those living independently, versus Vermonters living in long-term care facilities, Levine noted that “the latter are more ill on a chronic basis and make up a higher percentage of deaths in Vermont.”

But he concluded that Vermont has been “extremely fortunate” thanks to “proactive and preemptive strategies in place.”

Hutt, who serves as commissioner of the Vt. Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, emphasized the need to recognize the ways in which COVID-19 has increased social isolation for older Vermonters, while being conscious of how conversations around aging are framed.

Hutt has seen a rise in social isolation, a side-effect of social and physical distancing, especially from working with older Vermonters. “Connection and isolation are two different sides of the very same coin,” she said, “There are a lot of barriers to connection.”

While she thinks part of the conversation needs to additionally reimagine how to make connections, Hutt added that “recognizing how important human touch is and how you miss it when you don’t have it,” should not be excluded.

“The impact [of COVID-19] is hitting every single older Vermonter,” she said.

One of her department’s goals over the last several years has been to reframe how aging is talked about. “This virus could derail those reframing conversations,” she cautioned. “We want to make sure vulnerability is not the only word associated with older Vermonters.”

In response to the caller who asked when long-term care facilities would allow visitors to see loved ones, Levine said that while strict separation was necessary early on in the pandemic to keep the most vulnerable Vermonters safe, Medicare and Medicaid will be disseminating new guidelines soon.

“I feel your pain. You are not the only one,” said Levine. “Reducing isolation is an imperative now… We’re working out the protocol on how to make [visitation] practical and feasible.”

Hutt added that her department received new guidance of Monday of last week and were working towards stages of reopening. “We absolutely want to make this happen,” she said. “People are hitting their point with this, the point where they have to see some change happen. But we have to do it in a way that maintains safety.”

While Welch also noted that $450 million dollars has been distributed across the state in the form of $1,200 federal relief checks, one caller asked how he could find out more about the relief check, as he still hadn’t received his. Welch suggested that Vermonters who haven’t received checks yet should contact his office at (802) 652-2450.

Another Vermonter calling in conveyed concerns over returning to work to the panelists. “I don’t feel comfortable to go back to work even though my company said I have to go back,” she said. “Will I not get unemployment anymore if I refuse work?”

“I think there’s latitude to continue to receive unemployment,” replied Welch, noting that if folks have a health condition that would make them more susceptible to contraction of the disease, they should stay safe.

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