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Scott Administration Announces New Guidelines For Visiting Elders

Gov. Phil Scott stands at a podium next to a screen
ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott and his administration announced Wednesday guidelines for visiting people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

For the first time since March, visitors will be allowed at long-term care facilities in Vermont. The state announced Wednesday it is easing some restrictions to allow elderly residents to have outdoor visits with up to two people.

“I realize this step is small, but it is meaningful,” said Gov. Phil Scott at his thrice-weekly press conference on Wednesday.

The new rules, which go into effect on Friday, will also require facilities to follow other coronavirus mitigation strategies, like mandating cloth masks and social distancing during visits, as well as screening all visitors of symptoms of the disease.

"Over the weeks to come, we'll slowly increase visitors and group activities in a way that keeps people safe." — Gov. Phil Scott

Scott said he expects to continue to gradually open up the facilities, as long as statewide COVID-19 infections remain low.

“Like everything else, we’ll be tracking any changes or concerning trends,” Scott said. “And over the weeks to come, we’ll slowly increase visitors and group activities in a way that keeps people safe.”

The new guidelines will also let residents to visit each other outside, “but it does not allow for group dining or group activities within the facilities,” said Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith.

Protecting long-term facilities

The ban on visitors at long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, has been in place since March 13, when Scott declared a state of emergencydue to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Older people are at a high risk for complications from the virus, and long-term care facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic. Nationwide, at least 40% of the 116,000 COVID-19-related deaths  were in elder care facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Vermont is no exception. The majority of the state’s 55 coronavirus fatalities were related to outbreaks at two nursing homes in Burlington.

Public health officials say in the months since the pandemic struck, they’ve developed robust strategies to prevent the virus from entering long-term care facilities, including testing and quarantining new arrivals.

"I know we tend to dwell on the unfortunate circumstances of the two nursing homes... there were many, many facilities, many thousands of Vermonters who have done very well." — Health Commissioner Mark Levine

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said those strategies helped keep the virus out of the vast majority of the state’s 204 facilities.

“I know we tend to dwell on the unfortunate circumstances of the two nursing homes, which was very early on in the COVID experience,” he said. “But the reality is … there were many, many facilities, many thousands of Vermonters who have done very well.”

Levine said the state plans to do routine testing of staff and residents at long-term care facilities as they relax more restrictions.

Winooski outbreak update

The easing of the visitation restrictions comes on a day where the health department reported no new cases of COVID-19. The state has seen an increase in the last two weeks due to an outbreak in the city of Winooski.

There are now 83 cases associated with that outbreak, though there have not been any new cases identified in four days. But it’s too soon to know if the virus has been contained, according to Levine.

He said the coronavirus’ incubation period is two weeks, and the Health Department doesn’t consider an outbreak over until two incubation periods have passed.

“Right now, we would settle for just one incubation period just to further solidify the fact that it is boxed in and detained,” Levine said. “But with four days, that is impossible to say from a scientific standpoint.”

More from VPR: Winooski Outbreak Expands To Include Cases In Neighboring Municipalities

New prison case

There has been one new coronavirus infection found in the state’s prision system. An inmate at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland has tested positive, according the Smith, the Secretary of Human Services.

Smith said the person recently arrived at the prison after being extradited from Florida. The inmate had symptoms when he arrived, according to Smith, and was kept away from other inmates.

“He is still quarantined in a negative pressure cell, contact tracing is underway,” Smith said. “And depending on the tracing, we’ll determine whether what kind of test is involved, including facility-wide testing.”

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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