Governor:  School sports can begin soon

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by Joseph Gresser

Fall sports can begin when Vermont schools officially move to less restrictive step three measures on Saturday, Education Secretary Dan French said at Governor Phil Scott’s press briefing Tuesday.  School opened at step two, under which students had to have their health checked before going to schools and wear masks.

Those measures remain in place, but bans on using spaces like gymnasiums or lunchrooms will be loosened, Secretary French said.  They will be used for their intended purposes, but with restricted occupancy and a requirement that they get cleaned and disinfected between every group of students.

In addition students will no longer have to remain in “pods” — set groups of students who go through the whole school day together — a change that could allow more flexibility in arranging high school schedules.

He said the change in levels was set for September 26 to allow the longest possible sports season.  For many students sports are a major part of their school experience, and the season has already been shortened due to pandemic precautions.

Although games can go on as planned, the rules changes put into effect to lessen the chance of spreading COVID will remain.  Participants in all sports except cross-country running will have to wear masks, and touch football with seven-man teams will be the order of the day.

Mr. French emphasized that the changes merely give districts the discretion to loosen some of the restrictions students encountered when they returned to class at the beginning of September.  Unlike the social distancing and masking regulations, the changes are not mandatory.

While officials always hoped to move from level two rules to the lighter level three regulations, the change was made possible by Vermonters’ continuing adherence to policies that have kept the state’s rate of infection among the lowest in the country, Mr. French said.

He said so far only three schools in the state have seen cases of COVID.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the few cases that have been detected in schools had their origins in the community.  To date, he said, there have been no instances of anyone contracting COVID while at school.

Governor Scott announced a change in the contents of his briefings, which have gained a sizeable number of listeners and viewers around the state.  The statistical reports presented by Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak were moved from Fridays to Tuesdays, to enable people to use the map of safe counties in planning their travels.

People who live in nearby counties with fewer than 400 active cases per million people can come to Vermont and stay without having to quarantine themselves.  The list of which counties fall within those guidelines changes almost every week, so many who wanted to observe the rules had to plan their trips at the last minute.

Mr. French’s school reports will move to Fridays.

Mr. Pieciak’s report was favorable as it applied to Vermont.  New England, as a whole, saw a 16.4 percent increase in the number of COVID cases.  Quebec, in particular showed a rise, he said, although that is unlikely to have much effect on Vermont for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. and Canadian governments have agreed to keep the border shut for at least another month.

A graph showing the number of people eligible to visit Vermont without restrictions slumped again this week to 4.7 million people from around 5.5 million at the beginning of September and 6.6 million in mid August.

The forecast model from Columbia University predicts increases in infection in much of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  Their utility was put into perspective by the reaction of both Dr. Levine and Mr. Pieciak to forecast for an increased number of cases for Orleans County.

A little over a week ago Orleans County saw seven cases diagnosed in just a few days.  Dr. Levine said the track and trace investigation showed no connection between the cases and, to date, there has not been another.

The state officials said the Columbia model is probably based on that group of cases, and if the forecast has any validity it probably points to the possibility of one or two new cases in the county.

Governor Scott expressed some frustration with CNN maps showing COVID hot spots around the nation.  Because Vermont’s overall levels are so low, he said, a few cases have a statistical effect that makes it look as if there is a huge outbreak taking place.

Dr. Levine assured the Governor Tuesday that he watched the 5 a.m. CNN broadcast and Vermont was shown as a safe bright green area on the map.

The health commissioner said despite an unfortunate change in information on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, the agency remains a vital part of the nation’s response to new illnesses.

Reports said a statement saying aerosol transmission of the coronavirus was a factor in the spread of COVID in addition to airborne droplets was suddenly removed from the CDC’s webpage the other day.

Dr. Levine said aerosols are smaller particles of moisture that linger in the air longer than the airborne particles health experts have been warning about since the early days of the pandemic.  They can also travel farther than the six feet range of the larger droplets.

The consequence of this information, he said, is that a mask may be not only a measure that will protect people other than the wearer, but could also help filter out the smaller droplets.

Dr. Levine said masks will continue to be important once a vaccine is developed.  The first supplies of any vaccine are bound to go to those most in need of protection, doctors, nurses, and other people who directly care for others and face a higher risk of infection.

It will take some time before enough Vermonters are protected by a vaccine for life to return to a semblance of normality, he said.

The normal arrival of the flu season means people are being urged to get vaccinated.  Dr. Levine said the state has ordered larger than usual amounts of vaccine anticipating many people will want to protect themselves against illness.

A remark from Steve Merrill of NEKTV spurred a passionate defense of the creemee from Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts at Friday’s briefing.  After Governor Scott invited Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to visit the Northeast Kingdom and enjoy a maple creemee, Mr. Merrill said the frozen treat has its name spelled as it is because it contains no milk or cream.

Secretary Tebbetts gave Mr. Merrill the lie as he listed the actual ingredients of the frozen dessert, which very much include milk and cream and — here Mr. Tebbetts suggested Dr. Levine stop listening — 8 percent butterfat.

Maple is the iconic creemee flavor.  Mr. Tebbetts said he has triumphantly restored it to its rightful place in the dairy pantheon.


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