MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said he closed down in-person teaching for the rest of the school year so people wouldn’t be left guessing.
Officials gave updated statistics to the novel coronavirus pandemic and announced slightly relaxed restrictions on testing for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Vermont Department of Health announced Friday there had been 26 new cases in a day in Vermont, with one new death attributed to COVID-19.
The first two deaths from COVID were reported on March 19. As of Friday, the total number of Vermont deaths is 10.
The number of positive tests for COVID as for Friday was 184 out of 2,261 tests. The number reported on Thursday was 158.
On Thursday evening, the governor dismissed schools for in-person teaching for the rest of the school year. He held a news conference to talk about that decision Friday.
“However, to make sure our kids continue learning, I’m asking districts to complete plans for continued education through remote learning so we’re ready to go April 13. I know this news is incredibly difficult. Let’s face it: It’s disappointing, frustrating and it’s just plain sad for kids, parents, teachers and all school employees. My heart goes out to all of you. It’s going to be hard. I know that,” he said.
Scott said the sobering reality is, before too long, everyone will know someone who has died from the virus. As of Friday morning, there have been 10 deaths related to the virus in the state and 184 people have tested positive. Seven of those deaths come from an outbreak of the virus at the Burlington Health and Rehab Center.
Scott said in making this decision now he hopes the virus will be brought under control in time for students to take part in activities such as graduation before the summer starts.
“But we won’t make that decision until we’re certain it’s safe. For now, we need to use our creativity to find ways to deliver quality remote learning for our students through the end of the school year,” he said.
Scott said child care providers will remain closed except for those serving families with essential workers.
School buildings were closed March 15 and were to remain closed through April 6, but Scott said he decided to extend the closure Thursday instead of waiting in the interest of consistency.
“People want to know what’s going to happen, and if we put this plan into place, I think we’ll get better as time goes on,” he said, adding he didn’t want residents to get false expectations of schools opening back up for teaching.
Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said it was a challenging decision, but public health has to take priority.
There has been a national shortage of tests for the virus. Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said Vermont has been able to acquire more tests and equipment to collect test samples through “a very aggressive procurement strategy” so the testing criteria will be slightly relaxed.
“Now tests will still be prioritized and patients who have no symptoms will not be tested. But people who have mild or more moderate symptoms will have more opportunity to be tested now. They will still need to call to talk to their physician or other health care provider so that they may order the test. Let me be clear, you cannot just show up to a testing facility or a drive-thru. The test must be ordered by your physician,” he said.
Levine said the hope is to find more patients early, isolate them and slow the spread.
According to health officials, those who are most at risk for the virus are older people, those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues. Levine said he’s also concerned for those who smoke or vape and those who need treatment for alcohol or substance use.
Levine said everyone knows cigarettes harm the lungs and research is showing vaping or using e-cigarettes can cause issues as well. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease.
“It really makes it harder for people who smoke or vape, whatever tobacco, cannabis or anything else, to fight off the virus. Putting them at much greater risk of severe illness or even death,” he said.
Levine said there has never been a better time or better reason to quit smoking and vaping. He said people have been told to stay home to help stop the spread of the virus so they have time for something new to focus on, like quitting. Those looking for help to quit smoking can go to www.802quits.org or call 800-QUIT-NOW.
Levine also announced a new state website: www.vthelplink.org for those seeking treatment for drug or alcohol use.
“The global pandemic has not erased the continued urgent need for substance use-related services for Vermonters. In fact, the extraordinary steps required to stop the spread of COVID-19 creates new challenges for people living with substance use disorder to get the services they need,” Levine said.
The website features a call center of trained staff and clinicians where callers can get information, referrals, resources and educational materials on substance use for themselves, family and friends, or on behalf of clients. There is also an online screening tool where residents can learn about available treatment options to meet their needs.
For the most up-to-date information and guidance about COVID-19, including from the CDC, visit healthvermont.gov/covid19