Gov. Phil Scott offered more details on his “stay home, stay safe” order during a news conference Wednesday, while public health and safety officials shared what they’re expecting as the COVID-19 outbreak continues.
The order, which Scott announced Tuesday, directs nonessential businesses and nonprofits to cease in-person operations, and orders citizens to stay indoors as much as possible, by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“I need you to stay home,” Scott said. “Doing so will save lives, it’s just that simple. That doesn’t mean you can’t go out for your essential needs, or take your dog for a walk or take your cross country skis out, just keep your distance from others while doing so.”
Commissioner of the Department of Health, Dr. Mark Levine, said the number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont is growing exponentially.
“I want to remind you that it was only two weeks ago that we had one case in Vermont,” he said.
The Vermont Department of Health on Wednesday confirmed 28 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death, bringing the total number of COVID-related deaths in Vermont to eight.
The total number of positive COVID-19 tests for Vermont was 123 on Wednesday, out of 1,712 tests conducted. The number of cases reported Tuesday was 95.
For the last few days, as the number of cases has grown, the health department has no longer been reporting the home county, age or gender of the new patients. There have been no details about the deaths either, since the weekend when health department officials said four deaths were residents of Burlington Health and Rehabilitation and one was being treated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in White River Junction.
There are five confirmed cases in both Washington and Rutland counties as of Wednesday.
Levine said the goal of all the COVID-19 measures has been to keep lots of people from getting sick all at once, and overloading the health care system.
“One thing we do know is the magnitude of the impact if nothing is done, and I can assure you the impact of what we’re going to do will lead to a far more favorable end result than if we had done nothing at all,” he said.
The order Scott issued Tuesday is in effect until April 15, but the governor made it clear that the timeline might be extended and more measures might have to be taken.
“We understand there are basic needs, you can leave for essential things like going to the grocery store and the pharmacy, or to seek medical care, or as I said earlier just to get out and get some fresh air and some exercise,” said Scott. “But when doing so it’s important to keep about six feet from others, wash your hands a lot, cough or sneeze into your elbow, if you’re unsure about something, whether you should be doing it or not, err on the side of public health and stay home.”
Excluded from the order are businesses that “are critical to public health and safety, and to economic and national security, like health care operations, and things like grocery stores and pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, critical manufacturing sectors, news media operations, those that serve vulnerable populations as well as services needed to maintain critical infrastructure and transportation,” he said.
Businesses owners with questions, or who believe they’re essential to public health, safety and the COVID-19 response, should go to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development website, said ACCD Secretary, Lindsey Kurrle.
“The governor has directed all in-person business operations to suspend, unless your are deemed essential to the COVID-19 response or national security,” Kurrle said. “This means companies that can move all, or part of their business, to remote operations can continue to operate those parts of their business.”
She said there’s an online form available on the ACCD website for business owners to fill out. She recommended people use the form and not try to contact ACCD personnel directly.
In response to media questions about how many beds and supplies Vermont has available to deal with an expected surge in COVID-19 patients, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the state needs, and is getting, more.
He said as of Wednesday there are 575 beds, 163 ventilators, 78,000 N95 masks and 88,000 surgical masks available.
“These numbers I gave you are not enough,” Smith said. “As we’re looking at the surge here and looking at what (Dr. Levine) showed on his charts, I think at a minimum we ought to double all the numbers I just gave you in terms of ventilators, beds available, those sort of things as we look at where these trend lines are going.”
Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said the Vermont National Guard is working on building three additional medical sites to handle the expected influx of patients. Planning is multi-layered, looking at best- and worst-case scenarios.
“As we mentioned earlier, the surge site build-out is happening and planning continues for that multi-layer,” said Schirling. “In addition, we’re sourcing both ventilators and (personal protective equipment). It’s important to note that the hospitals and health care facilities have their own supply chains, they’re accelerating those supply chains as fast as possible. The state is helping to supplement those supply chains. We bought millions of dollars in ventilators over the last two days, we bought 202 that are inbound for Vermont. The timelines aren’t known yet, but we’re buying them as fast as possible.”
The governor said between the three surge sites an additional 250 patients can be handled.
“We will meet the capacity we need,” Scott said.
Scott and Schirling indicated that Vermonters have been cooperative with the various COVID-19 measures that have come out so far.
“We’re about to issue guidance to municipalities and law enforcement organizations with suggested guidance on enforcement, and that will take the form initially of education and voluntary compliance,” said Schirling, adding that he believes this will largely be a self-regulated effort. However, a business running in defiance of an executive order could still face penalties, possibly through its state licenses.
“You have seen an increase in the visibility of law enforcement, that’s by design at this time,” he said in response to a question about individuals possibly being stopped on the street by police. “The presence of someone out and about at this time does not create the lawful ability to stop someone in a motor vehicle or pursue someone walking because there are legitimate reasons for people to be walking around.”
Scott said guidelines will be issued to towns and law enforcement agencies on how to enforce executive orders should that be necessary.
Meanshile, Congressman Peter Welch said Congress has passed two multi-billion dollar bills aimed at increasing unemployment insurance, helping hospitals, and small businesses. He said the Senate was working on a much larger bill as he spoke.
“This is extraordinary, it’s a $2 trillion economic aid package that is necessary, and there are many details to be worked out, but the contours give me some real optimism that Republican and Democrats are going to come together to get that aid back to individuals, to small businesses, and to our states,” said Welch.
The governor said he’s aware of the problems these measures are causing, but they’re necessary.
“Just to put this into perspective for those that may think we’re going too far, this virus is spreading quickly,” he said. “It may not have affected you yet, but all too soon many of us will know someone personally, and then it will start to feel very real. This is why we are asking our businesses to think beyond the next month; we all care about the health of our employees, family, and friends, the steps we’re taking today are all about protecting our loved ones so we can come out of this as strong as possible.”
Correction: A headline in Tuesday’s edition was incorrect in giving the number of new COVID-19 deaths in Vermont as of Monday. It was three.