by Tim McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Travelers entering Vermont and lodging establishments are the latest groups called on to help fight the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont, according to Governor Phil Scott’s Monday order.
“If you don’t need to come to Vermont, please don’t,” Scott said at a news conference Monday morning.
As a governor whose core message often includes growing Vermont’s economy and population, this was a call for “public health and safety, which is our top priority.”
Those traveling from CDC-identified “hot spots” Florida and Louisiana, the cities of Detroit, Chicago and New York City are instructed not to travel if they have any symptoms. Anyone returning to Vermont from out of state is now required to home quarantine for 14 days, and is expected to comply with the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order throughout and afterwards.
“We need everyone entering Vermont to be a good neighbor and abide by the self-isolation directive, and then to follow afterwards my ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order,” Scott said.
Read the addendum to the Executive Order here, which includes guidance for lodging establishments on complying with state guidance.
Empty Rooms are Worth the Risk
The bottom line for establishments hosting visitors not essential to the COVID-19 response is: don’t do it.
Lodging establishments must shut down, and cease all online bookings and advertisements until April 15, unless serving four select purposes outlined in the order (link above). This includes accommodations from hotels to bed and breakfasts to short-term rentals such as Airbnb to RV parks and camping facilities.
Of the 318 Vermont properties identified as lodging establishments, Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling said 88 were open as of this past weekend. Of those 88, half were found to be in compliance with state guidelines for continued operations. The remaining 44, which “appear to be noncompliant,” according to Schirling, are receiving guidance from the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety.
Establishments first received letters over the weekend, according to Schirling. On Monday, follow-up calls were made to those appearing to be noncompliant.
Any lodging operation found to be noncompliant could face civil and/or criminal penalties, according to Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan. Civil penalties range from $1,000 to $10,000 in fines. Criminal penalties are $500 in fines or 30 days in jail.
Vermont State Police and local law enforcement will be assisting in further compliance measures, and more guidance will be coming for short-term rental establishments.
Traveling to Vermont
Scott acknowledged that many have family or homes in Vermont to whom and which they must return, and while these measures may be difficult, they must not create division. The “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order is expected to be extended, Scott said.
“We can’t let this become an us versus them view of the world,” the governor said. “That’s not who we are as Americans, and certainly not who we are as Vermonters.”
Q&A with Vermont Journalists
This is a paraphrase of questions and answers.
Q: How long before we know how and if the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” policy is working?
Dr Levine: Given the Chinese experience it would take 14-days to several weeks to know. Vermont is instituting more testing and with more cases being reporting, the modeling will get better. Over time the VDH will get better data, which will include hospitalizations and outcomes.
Q: Why are the number of cases in the VDH map and graph different from each other?
Dr Levine: I’ll have to look into it. It could be that there is a difference between where the patient resides and where someone is treated. There are a few cases of people from other states being treated here or Vermonters being treated out-of-state.
Q: There is a report of Vermont ordering refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues, as they’ve done in some other places, is that true?
Scott: Yes, we’re looking for trucks in order to be prepared in case of a surge. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re prepared for the worst.”
Q: Has the modeling changed in order to assess the quantity of PPEs necessary in Vermont?
Scott: We’re updating the modeling now.
Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling: Over 400 ventilators have been ordered and we’re looking at ways to make them and PPEs here in Vermont. There also might be a way for a ventilator to serve two patients.
Scott: We’ve also received support from the federal government. “We’re pulling every lever we can.”
Schirling: We are looking for proper storage space to accommodate all the equipment.
Q: How do you plan to enforce the travel restrictions?
Scott: It’s a difficult thing to do. Right now we’re advocating for them to do the right thing. “We’re not going to be able to enforce our way through this.”
Q: What are the patient counts by hospital?
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith: There are a total of 19 COVID-19 patients. There are 13 at UVMMC (Burlington), 2 at Southwestern Medical Center (Bennington), 2 at Northwestern Medical Center (St Albans), and one each at Mt Ascutney (Windsor) and CVMC (Berlin).
Q: The state is the largest single employer in the state, but some jobs now redundant (DMV offices, etc). With state revenues taking a hit are you planning any layoffs or are staff being deployed?
Scott: Some from DMV have been redeployed to assist the Labor Department. At some point we will have to have an in-depth discussion with the Legislature about how we move forward with state finances, because it is problematic. I’ve spoken to Congressman Welch and Senator Leahy almost daily about the federal stimulus package. We will wait to see how that helps. For now we’re focused on keeping Vermonters healthy.
Q: Can you tell us anything more about the cases in Essex?
Dr Levine: Currently there is one positive case there and 10 people have been tested and are being monitored and are self-isolating. “Remember, testing is not treatment.” A clean test does not mean you could not get COVID-19 later. Senior living residences are not nursing homes and have people freely moving around in common areas where they can congregate.
Scott: Assume you have it even if you have no symptoms. This is a way to take care of yourself and take care of others.
Dr Levine: We want you to make the assumption that you are harboring the virus and self-isolate.
Q: This relates to transparency. Grand Isle and Essex Counties are still report zero cases but I’ve heard of a resident of Grand Isle who is in the hospital with COVID-19. I’ve also heard that not all staff at the hospitals know which patients are COVID-19 patients.
Smith: I’m not aware of any cases from those two counties.
Dr Levine: Patients should be listed not by where they’re being treated but by their county of residence. As for the hospitals, the patient rooms would be clearly marked. I can’t believe that any health care provider would not know he was walking into a room with a COVID-19 patient. The patients would be in strict isolation. Each hospital has very specific infectious control practices that they need to abide by.
Q: Governor Scott, your executive order expires in two weeks, do you anticipate extending that? Do you have any idea when the coronavirus will peak?
Scott: I think everyone should expect that the executive order will be extended beyond April 15. The modeling will help us determine the course of the illness. “I think it’s important for everyone to understand the magnitude of this.”
Q: There is a request not to travel into Vermont, but what about people who cross state borders in order to work? And have you discussed this with neighboring governors?
Scott: Essential workers can move across state borders. For instance if someone works at UVMMC and lives in Plattsburgh. Or someone working for border patrol. But non-essential workers are asked to stay where they are and if they do come home, to self-isolate for 14 days.
I have not spoken with Governor Cuomo but have been in frequent touch with Governor Sununu (NH) and Governor Baker (MA).
Q: Why aren’t US Mail carriers and counter attendants wearing masks or gloves?
Scott: Some are and you see some grocery stores using plexiglass to help keep customers and staff safe. I would urge the Post Office to adopt these practices. As for gloves, they can also transmit the virus, such as if you touch something infected and then touch your face, the glove won’t protect you and you can still transmit the virus. Letter carriers need to protect themselves and others.
Q: How did the hotels and other lodging facilities respond to the new order? When do you expect the virus to peak?
Schirling: On Saturday we surveyed the establishments and on Sunday the ones that were still open and apparently in violation were sent a letter informing them that they needed to close. Today (Monday) they were being called to follow up. We expect everyone who is not lodging essential workers to comply.
Scott: We expect the number of COVID-19 cases to peak sometime in April, but we will no more going forward.
Q: Do you know that some Airbnbs in the Upper Valley were still operating this weekend?
Scott: The order applies to them and we expect them to comply.
Schirling: They need to shut down and we will monitor online posting and as necessary will refer them to the attorney general’s office.
Scott: Some simply didn’t know they needed to comply, which is why the publicity is needed.
Q: How many supplies have been requested of the federal government and how much has come in?
Scott: We’re not waiting on the federal government.
Schirling: Millions of PPEs have been requested and hundreds of thousands of pieces have come in. Six hundred ventilators have been requested.
Q: Is the testing working? How is the testing progressing?
Scott: Starting Tuesday we will be flying the tested specimens to those going to outside labs so we can get results within 24 hours.
Dr Levine: There is a 10-14 day impact from exposure. The incubation period is anywhere from 2-14 days.
Q: What is the impact on the prison population?
Smith: We’ve implemented a no-visitation rule. Also, we have a relatively low prison population at the moment of less than 1,500. Last year it was about 1,600. The staff undergo temperature checks every time they come to work. No prisoners have tested positive so far.
“We’ve been very very aggressive in our correction facilities.”
Q: How do you anticipate this will change our infrastructure once this is over? The Internet is inadequate in many places. Are you people talking to providers like Consolidated Communications about increasing service now. In some cases it is just a matter of upgrading a switch.
Scott: Tropical Storm Irene taught us many lessons. We learned to build bridges and culverts better. We will also do things better after the COVID-19 crisis clears. The Public Service Department and Commissioner Tierney are always working with providers to try and expand services.
Right now we’re all trying to find a way through this crisis. One of the silver linings is that through this media availability, for instance, we’re able to reach journalists across the state (via teleconference) instead of having just a handful at a press conference.
Q: I’ve seen reports of a new test that can give results in 15 minutes, is this something that Vermont will use?
Scott: We don’t have that yet, but if it becomes available to us we will utilize it.
Dr Levine: If it becomes available. There are different tests being developed and we have a “bunch of irons in the fire.”
Q: Do you have information about how many health care providers are self-isolation to keep their own families safe?
Smith: We are talking now about surge staff beds in hospitals. We are using surge modeling to judge the scope if the cases exceed the hospitals’ surge capacity. There are many factors including non-COVID-19 cases that need hospital care, homeless people, mental health patients, prison population, recovering patients and staff.
“The hospitals are responsible for the initial surge” and then the state would step in.
Q: Has the ratio changed for the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases needing hospitalization?
Dr Levine: Still about 80 percent don’t need to be hospitalized.