Reporter debrief: Scott administration talks mental health at latest COVID briefing

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Governor Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Feb. 1 on the state’s current response to the pandemic.

There were signs the Scott administration might change the way it wants Vermonters to think about the coronavirus.

That’s according to VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel, who spoke with Vermont Edition co-host Mikaela Lefrak about some of the key takeaways from the briefing. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: Now, instead of starting the press conference with a COVID update, as he usually does, Governor Scott has instead spent time highlighting the state’s mental health crisis. And later in the press conference, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also spoke about the stress faced by adults and children in Vermont — mental health stress in particular. So why do you think there was such a focus on mental health today?

Bob Kinzel: Well, I think it’s all part of an effort to make that transition that Dr. Levine talked about – from pandemic to endemic. And when you’re in pandemic mode, you deal with emergencies, trying to juggle things as best you can.

But as we move towards endemic, Dr. Levine was saying that we need to look at some of these issues – mental health issues with students, with adults. These are issues that existed before the pandemic, but have been much aggravated by the events of the past two years. So I think what we heard from the administration today was really quite a significant statement that they are now in the planning stages of transitioning from pandemic to endemic. Now what does this mean? They talked about our recovery period – let’s start looking at it more like the flu. I think it’s a huge psychological shift.

Now, Dr. Mark Levine has also said that the measures we pay attention to in this pandemic will start to change:

“Our goals will continue to be focused on protecting those most at risk for the worst outcomes from COVID and ensuring the health care system has sufficient capacity to meet the needs of Vermonters,” Levine said. “So we need to continue to pay close attention to hospitalizations. But our reliance on metrics like daily case counts and percent positivity won’t have much value anymore.”

So less emphasis on daily case counts, percentage positivity — more on things like hospitalization rates. So Bob, what have we learned about hospitalization rates? How is the state doing right now?

Well, the good news is that hospitalization rates are down. I think the general opinion of the administration today is that we have reached the peak of this push. We are definitely regressing in terms of the number of cases, which are perhaps lower today than they were a few months ago. But they are down 40%. In the past seven days, they have fallen by 50%. Over the past 14 days, hospitalizations have decreased by 10% over the past seven days. This is all very, very good news.

Watch the Scott administration’s Feb. 1 press conference below, courtesy of ORCA Media:

But these numbers are still high. They are much higher than three or four months ago. And so they have a way down. So the good news is that the trend is heading in the right direction. Now we just need to see that continue for the next two weeks. You know, one thing that struck me is that right now about 105,000 Vermonters have tested positive for COVID, almost in our second year. Now it happens to 20% of our population aged five or older. But it’s really, I think, a very dramatic number. And this is when the administration begins its transition from pandemic to endemic.

And that 20%, as you said – that doesn’t include people who tested positive at home and didn’t report it to the state, or children under the age of five.

Now, speaking of those kids, Education Secretary Dan French today answered some questions about the state’s home testing program for schools. And in particular, there were questions around this idea of ​​alleged contacts. Can you tell us exactly what he was clarifying there?

He described it as widening their net. So rather than having close contact with someone, who may be in the same classroom, or three or four rows away from you, it can now be a bit wider. Did you have suspected contact with another student within a reasonable physical time? And the idea, I think, is to try to encourage more home testing. The state would love to see more families and students using these antigen tests.

This will replace the contact tracing they used to do, which was time-consuming and staff-intensive. So the idea is, “Let’s get the kids back to school.” I think the administration is very convinced that at this point there are more problems with keeping children out of school than having them in school. So what can the state do to try to allay concerns about student exposure to COVID? Well, here’s one way: we could expand the entire contact program to include suspected contacts.

And I thought that was quite interesting. When Secretary French said the cafeteria wasn’t much of a concern. I think that’s going to raise a few eyebrows because I’ve definitely been following what’s going on at the Statehouse and lawmakers are coming back. And every health official who has spoken to legislative leaders has said the Statehouse cafeteria is the worst possible place and the place most likely to spread infections. So we’ll have to find out more about what Secretary French was thinking.

Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or contact the journalist Bob Kinzel @vprkinzel.

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