Governor: ‘Worst is yet to come’

State orders schools to close in an attempt to ‘bend the curve’ of COVID-19 outbreak

BRATTLEBORO — Hoping to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the state of Vermont has ordered the closure of all public schools.

This closure will last at least until April 6, but it might be extended depending on how the virus moves through the state.

“This is a moment of service for all of us,” Gov. Phil Scott said in a press conference in Montpelier on Monday as he outlined the new measures.

“We have to slow the spread down to bend the curve,” he said, referencing a graph that contrasts the potential two paths the spread of the virus could take.

The first mimics a high mountain peak, the second a low and wide gentle rolling hill. Both images convey scenarios where the virus will infect many people.

However, in the first scenario, the high peak shows a spike through a line that represents the capacity of the health-care system, showing the risk that a rapid rise in the number of sick people could prove overwhelming.

In the second scenario, where the number of sick people stays lower over a longer period of time, the peak falls below the line of health-care capacity, illustrating that the health care system can cope if the population does not contract the disease as rapidly as in the first scenario.

This is where closing the schools comes in.

According to Scott, the state has implemented and timed its decision based on science and public-health data.

“We feel we're ahead of the curve,” he said of the timing around closing schools. “I believe we're right on schedule.”

Scott told reporters on Monday that the state has told school districts that they must have systems in place that ensure:

• Continuity of learning - whether online or paper based - and remote learning plans.

• Getting meals to kids who qualify for school lunches.

• Meeting the services necessary for special education students.

• Developing a child care service or plan for families working in the health care or first responder fields.

• Paying staff.

Scott said that the state will soon release a plan for providing child care. Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith added that members of his staff have formed an internal task force that is looking at issues such as existing child-care subsidies and ensuring that families will keep them, even if they need to change providers, for example.

“We're trying to be as flexible as possible,” Smith said.

Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey thanked all the educators working to support their students.

The Agency of Education is doing its best to answer all the questions educators have, she said. “We stand ready to serve.”

Responding to this virus means “charting a new path” in the state, Bouchey said. Still, the agency has guidance from previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2009 H1N1 flu.

She urged people to remember that Vermont is not alone, and nationwide, schools and communities are making similar decisions.

The AOE has set up structures to help schools address the needs of education continuity, remote learning, serving special needs students, and providing nutritional services. She assured Vermonters that schools will craft their learning opportunities to meet the needs of their communities.

For example, communities with robust internet speeds may switch fully to online learning. Communities with less internet availability will use a combination of online- and paper-learning opportunities.

Noting a change in the virus' course

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said that as of 10:30 a.m., the state had 12 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

He said that some of those who tested positive caught the virus not through travelling abroad but from person-to-person contact in the U.S.

Such a method of infection marks a change in how the virus is moving through the community, he said. The virus is no longer being brought into the community; it is already here and on the move.

Social distancing is important, Levine said.

While doing so will prove challenging for communities, it can also mean fewer people getting ill, fewer people dying, and a less of a chance that the virus will overrun the health-care system.

Levine also stressed the importance of people staying home if they are sick or displaying symptoms of the virus, including a fever, dry cough, or difficultly breathing.

Do not go to the emergency department or your doctor's office, he warned. Instead, call your doctor and follow instructions.

Levine said that over the next few months, the state will likely experience an increase in the number of coronavirus cases.

“If you do social distancing well,” he said, “we will all thank you.”

One reporter asked about some of the patients who had tested positive - patients who were residents of another state but quarantining at their second home in Vermont. Are these people adding an extra burden on the Vermont health-care system? the reporter asked.

Scott responded, “We as a nation are in this together, and we'll get through this together.”

He added that anyone considering traveling to Vermont to weather the coronavirus storm should screen themselves for illness and consider staying home.

“But once they're here, we'll take care of them,” he said. “Vermonters are compassionate, and we take care of people.”

Levine added that viruses don't respect borders and that really, Vermont should consider itself part of a broader northern New England community during this outbreak.

In regards to testing and the number of testing kits, the state has had several conversations with its state and federal counterparts, which include New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.

Scott said the state is developing a “Vermont approach” to testing that could include partnerships with the University of Vermont, its medical center, and its Larner College of Medicine.

Levine said, as of Monday, that the state had tested 415 patients and that 400 test kits and 297 hospital beds were available. In addition, New Hampshire hospitals had tested five Vermonters.

Other plans in the works

Scott said the state has also adopted the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's guidance to limit gatherings to 50 people or to 50 percent of a space-occupancy rate - whichever is fewer.

State employees who can work remotely will do so. Other state services like the Department of Motor Vehicles might make changes to hours, so residents should keep an eye on state websites.

In the case of the DMV, the governor has extended all license and registration renewals by 90 days. Check to learn more.

State officials also reported steps to mitigate the economic impacts of the virus and to support workers who either can't work due to illness or whose employers close.

Some of these supports require tweaks to federal law, Scott said. He has spoken to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who have told him they're working on the issue.

“We know this is coming,” Scott said. “The worst is yet to come. We just need to slow it down a bit.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates