Despite having some of the lowest hospitalization and death rates for COVID-19 in the nation, Vermont continues to maintain substantial restrictions on businesses and services, along with a new mandate to wear a mask in all public places starting Saturday.
As of Monday, Vermont has one hospitalization for COVID-19 and hasn’t had a COVID-related death in more than a month. Of the 56 total deaths recorded in the state since the start of the pandemic, only four were under the age of 60.
At his press conference Tuesday morning, Gov. Phil Scott nevertheless defended his continuation of the state of emergency and tight restrictions on Vermonters.
“Arizona, California, Texas, Florida, Jersey, New York, the rest of the New England states, the Midwest — I mean that could be Vermont,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to be in the position that we are today because of the approach that we’ve taken, because it could have ended up much differently.
“As I’ve said many times, two hours from here in Boston they had almost 9,000 deaths, they had 32,000 deaths in New York City in particular, which is only a five-hour drive, so we’re not immune to that. But the approach we took I think has led us to where we are today. I don’t want to lose any ground.”
The governor announced Tuesday that school districts will open on Sept. 8. According to Scott’s executive order, individual districts will decide whether to offer remote or in-person instruction.
“I want to open the schools for in-person instruction and to do that we’re going to have to take steps and measures to keep us moving in the right direction, which I think has worked for us.”
COVID reporting has come under increased criticism in recent weeks. A report by the Washington Post notes not all states are counting COVID-19 cases in the same manner. Some states have adopted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy to include non-lab-test-confirmed cases into the COVID-19 case counts.
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said all coronavirus cases that get reported in Vermont are PCR (polymerise chain reaction) confirmed lab cases.
“Early on there was some confusion because the CDC had lumped together the PCR test, which is the one done through the nose, and serology antibody testing, which is done through the blood. We had a very tiny percentage of those lumped in with our other cases,” Levine said. “Those have been clearly separated out now and we’re only reporting the PCR confirmed active cases, not serology. That was a point of confusion in a number of states across the country.”
He added that recent confusion counting cases in Manchester and surrounding regions had to do with counting antigen tests and different tests other than the PCR test. Between July 10 and July 20, more than 60 people tested positive for coronavirus based on rapid antigen testing. Subsequent PCR tests found that only two people had the virus. Vermont, Levine said, is requiring that the antigen test be confirmed with the PCR test.
CDC recommended criteria for counting cases include a non-lab-test-confirmed scenario in which the patient has at least one symptom, including cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Another non-lab-tested category for counting COVID is if the patient has been in contact with “a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 disease.” The guidelines include several scenarios under “epidemiologic linkage” and “clinical criteria” that involve a patient counted as COVID-19 positive without a lab-test confirmation.
Counting methods have created confusion in other states as well as Vermont. In Texas, the Collin County epidemiology department’s Aisha Souri explained in late May that the state’s revised definition for COVID-19 probable cases allows for those labeled as “probable” to be considered “confirmed.”
On the issue of opening schools in Vermont, Scott continued to warn of the dangers of COVID-19.
“We recognize how unpredictable this pandemic is and the anxiety it can and has caused, so our planning includes remote learning and hybrid models. … Whether it’s going back to work in manufacturing facilities, construction jobs, retail, and so forth, the same types of basic protection is needed. Make sure you wear your mask, stay separated from others when possible. If you are sick stay home.”
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, said during the press conference that people should stay focused on how local leaders are managing the pandemic.
“I would ask Vermonters to take their gaze off the national scene and instead look towards our local leaders who know our communities best, and trust that they will provide the best guidance and most importantly adapt the guidance in response to evolving evidence,” she said.