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Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, seen here at closing time on the evening of Nov. 4, was again closed to the public as of Nov. 16.

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State grapples with renewed wave of coronavirus infections, COVID-19 cases

To keep schools and businesses open, Vermont restricts small gatherings, tightens travel guidelines

BRATTLEBORO—As a new wave of COVID-19 sweeps through the United States, Vermont is taking some significant steps to control the coronavirus after a week that saw the highest number of new cases in the state since tracking began in March.

On Nov. 13, Gov. Phil Scott announced an executive order that calls for strict new guidelines for social gatherings, bars and restaurants, and sports leagues.

“We are definitely moving in the wrong direction,” Scott said at a news briefing regarding the recent case growth and relaxing of safe behavior by individuals.

“We can and must get this under control,” he added, or hospitals will get overwhelmed and more people will die.

The urgency is underscored by a sharp increase in new cases over the past week.

On Nov. 16, 122 new cases of the virus were reported in the state, the highest one-day total since the state started tracking the outbreak on March 11. A total of 623 new cases have been reported between Nov. 10 and 17.

In his weekly forecast, Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said on Nov. 17 that Vermont is forecast to see a 50 percent increase in new COVID-19 cases over the next six weeks, but that adherence to the new restrictions could greatly lower that figure.

“The future is not inevitable for us,” Pieciak said, saying the actions Vermonters take now will directly determine how many people will get sick and need treatment in the coming weeks.

Scott said that to slow the spread of the virus, to ensure hospitals are not overwhelmed, to help in-person classes continue at schools, and to keep as many Vermonters working as possible, he has issued the eighth addendum to the executive order that rolled out the state’s response to the global pandemic on March 13.

Public and private multi-household social gatherings are prohibited: Attendance at all public and private social gatherings, indoor and outdoor, including social gatherings incidental to ceremonies, holiday gatherings, parties and celebrations, are limited to participation of members within a single household.

Individuals who live alone may gather with members of their immediate family residing in a different household.

Restaurants restricted in hours and seating: Restaurants must close in-person dining at 10 p.m. but may provide curbside and delivery service after that hour.

For in-person dining, restaurants must seat only one household per table, in accordance with existing capacity limits and the new restriction on multi-household gatherings.

Bars and social clubs closed to guests: Bars and social clubs will be closed for in-person service until further notice. Curbside and delivery service is allowed.

Recreational sports on hold: Youth and adult recreational sports activities, not related to Vermont Principals’ Association–sanctioned school sports, are suspended until further notice.

In-person work deeply discouraged: All businesses, nonprofits, and government entities must reinstitute tele-work policies for all employees “to the maximum extent possible,” the order says. In-person meetings are strongly discouraged and should be held by telephone or videoconference “whenever possible.”

Contact tracing and testing required: Restaurants and other businesses “hosting non-essential activities” shall maintain a 30-day log of employee and guest names and contact information in case contact tracing is required by the Health Department.

Such individuals are consenting to be contacted by the Health Department Contact Tracing Team, and all Vermonters are directed to comply with that team’s requests.

• Finally, students returning home from any college — in-state or out-of-state alike — shall quarantine for 14 days. That mandate is reduced to seven days if the student tests negative for the virus, and such testing is strongly encouraged.

An outbreak fueled by social gatherings

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that, since Oct. 1, 71 percent of all new cases in Vermont can be traced to social gatherings such as baby showers, Halloween parties, deer camps, and other events where masking and physical distancing are not maintained.

Levine said more virus has breached the borders of the state as the pandemic has encroached, with more cases resulting from the prevalence of social gatherings and because they are moving indoors as summer turns to fall and then winter.

Unlike businesses like gyms or salons, which have implemented strict sanitation procedures, social gatherings have been the focus of these new outbreaks, with “people letting their guard down,” Scott said.

The data indicate that even single-household restaurant visits have not been associated with outbreaks, according to Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

Levine said the state’s ability to contain the spread of the virus, and thus the spread of the severe illness it can cause, relies heavily on the cooperation of Vermonters who have tested positive and their close contacts.

“But when the contact tracing team is not getting the information it needs, then people who may have been exposed to the virus and don’t know it might be unintentionally transmitting it to others,” Levine said. “That’s how an outbreak starts.”

Left unchecked, Levine said, single cases lead to community spread of the virus, which leads to outbreaks of COVID-19 illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. It’s essential that each person takes precautions to avoid exposure and do everything they can to prevent spread to others, state officials warned.

Levine urged anyone who gets a call from the Health Department to answer and to provide all the information requested.

“We need everyone’s help to do our job,” he said. “And that job is to protect the health of all Vermonters.”

He added that the best way to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the virus “is to follow the core prevention actions: Masks on faces, 6-foot spaces, uncrowded places.”

Quarantine policy reimposed

The Nov. 13 executive order addendum came on the heels of a Nov. 10 announcement that Vermont is temporarily requiring a 14-day quarantine for all non-essential travel, as well as increased compliance checks.

Any non-essential travel into Vermont now requires a seven-day quarantine and a negative COVID-19 test, or a 14-day quarantine.

Essential travel includes travel to attend all grades of school and college if commuting daily, or for work, for personal safety, for medical care of oneself or others, for parental shared custody, or for food or medicine.

Schirling said the state is conducting random checks to assess compliance at hotels and restaurants, as was done in the spring during the first peak of the pandemic.

Law enforcement will begin handing out cards with COVID-19 safety information during traffic stops, he reported.

Schirling said that if substantial noncompliance is found and those businesses don’t fix the problems, those cases may be referred to the attorney general’s office.

Expanded testing begins

Vermont is also expanding its testing program through a contract with CIC Health of Cambridge, Mass., and developing a plan to offer daily testing at locations throughout the state.

The Health Department will also increase surveillance testing, designed to test asymptomatic populations, to find the virus in the community more quickly. Some people infected with the coronavirus have no symptoms but are capable of unknowingly spreading the highly contagious pathogen.

To establish a baseline, the state is offering testing to K-12 teachers and staff during the week of Nov. 16. This approach will help identify cases — particularly these cases that never develop symptoms — and thereby help to reduce the risk of clusters or outbreaks and supporting efforts to sustain and expand in-person learning for students.

COVID-19 symptoms can include fever (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), coughing, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing, chills, fatigue, muscle pain or aches, headache, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

The Health Department continues to recommend testing for people with COVID-19 symptoms, people who have had close contact (within 6 feet for a cumulative time of 15 minutes or more) with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and people who are referred by their health care provider for testing for another reason.

The Health Department has scheduled “pop-up” test sites in Brattleboro. Here are the steps to set up a testing appointment at a pop-up testing site: Register to get an account at vermont.force.com/events/s/selfregistration, receive an email with your patient ID and use that to confirm your account (check your spam folder if you don’t see the email), log in with your patient ID, and then set up an appointment.

Testing will take place Nov. 18 and 25, at the Brattleboro Health District Office (232 Main St., next to the Municipal Center) and on Nov. 18, 19, and 20 at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, 17 Belmont Ave.

The state also plans to open a full-time testing center in Brattleboro in the coming days.

Municipal Center prepares for remote operations

Soon after the governor’s announcement, Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said that the town’s administrative offices will transition next week back to the almost entirely remote operations that were put in place during the period of the “Stay Home Stay Safe” series of executive orders in March and April.

Elwell said some town offices became unoccupied on Monday, and by the end of this week, “most town offices will be unoccupied most of the time.”

“As was true last spring, some employees will come to the offices on some days just to perform tasks that cannot be performed from remote locations,” Elwell wrote in the town’s weekly COVID-19 report. “We found last spring that we could adequately meet the public’s needs while performing the vast majority of our work online, via email, and by phone.”

Elwell said that, for now, the town’s field operations (police, fire, public works, utilities, parks maintenance, facilities maintenance, and parking enforcement) “will continue in a manner that will not materially change for the public.”

He said the town has “maintained COVID-related safety precautions in our field operations throughout the summer of 2020.”

“Those precautions will ramp back up in the days ahead and, more likely, days from now than weeks from now,” Elwell added.

Library, Rec. Dept. curtail operations

• Brooks Memorial Library began suspending public visits within the building on Nov. 16. Curbside and delivery service are still available. Patrons may request materials by placing a hold on an item in their online account, emailing circulation@brookslibraryvt.org, or calling 802-254-5290, ext. 0.

Reference service is offered at ext. 1220, and assistance with electronic services can be found at ext. 1204. Online resources, streaming video, downloadable e-books, audiobooks, and magazines are accessible 24/7 via the library website.

• The Brattleboro Recreation & Parks Department is also suspending all recreational sports programs, including organized and/or informal recreational youth and adult league sports, practices, and games.

The opening of the Nelson Withington Skating Facility, originally scheduled for Nov. 21, has been postponed until further notice.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #588 (Wednesday, November 18, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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