Burlington city officials hold telephone town hall

Published: Mar. 16, 2020 at 12:56 AM EDT
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Officials in Vermont’s largest city are suspending nonessential city services and sharing more precautionary steps they’re taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke, Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan and UVM Medical Center President Stephen Leffler held a telephone town hall on Sunday to take people’s questions.

Weinberger says slowing the transmission of COVID-19 and ensuring the safety and health of all city employees and Burlington residents are his administration’s top priorities. He is urging everyone to continue social distancing to flatten the curve. He says people in Burlington should not be overly-reassured that this pandemic is over.

“The COVID-19 virus is here in Chittenden County now,” said D-Burlington. “And there’s a high likelihood of more people in the region that are already infected and are at risk of spreading the virus.”

While speaking to about 1,300 Burlingtonians who dialed into the conference call, Weinberger discussed the changes people should expect this upcoming week.

Weinberger outlined the steps being taken in city facilities to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. He says he has instructed city employees to work from home starting Monday and will likely suspend all nonessential city services, such as the treasurer’s office.

Meanwhile, vital services, such as emergency, police and fire will continue. The city opened up an emergency operation center to preserve essential services throughout the course of the pandemic.

“And what I mean by that are electric and water service, the maintenance of public streets, and emergency and fire and police services,” said Weinberger.

Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke says the fire department is coordinating with the state emergency operations center to make sure they have all the resources they need. He says they’ve developed a work-from-home plan and will begin implementing it soon. They’ve also made sure the essential services have enough staff.

There are also new rules at UVM Medical Center now that there’s a patient with the illness in isolation at the hospital, according to UVMMC President Dr. Stephen Leffler.

“We also changed our visitor policy this week to tighten up and basically try and have less visitors coming to see patients because they could be coming in with the virus,” said Leffler. “We're also doing extensive screening now of everyone coming in the building and that will likely get tighter over the next couple of days.

In the middle of the call, the panel received word that Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, mandated all Vermont K-12 schools close by Wednesday. Burlington School District Superintendent Yaw Obeng supports Scott’s decision. He says the district's top concern now is making sure students are fed.

“We do have a plan around feeding students. We do that on snow days and we also feed all our kids in the summer — they have that option. Our director of food services has been working on a plan and we'll be able to share that with the community in the next couple of days on when they can access food,” Obeng told WCAX News.

Obeng says they also want to make sure parents are supported. He says they're working with the city to create platforms for child care for parents who need emergency help.

Vermont’s Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan also positively responded to news that Gov. Scott is mandating the closure of K-12 schools. When asked why it took so long to close schools, Dolan said the health department conducted research and found closing schools too early can be ineffective if they’re done before community transmission.

“This weekend, it was really pivotal because the more cases that we got in, we were able to see how did this person contract the virus and what we found was that they did not have travel-associated infection, at least some of the cases,” she said. “And they were not in touch with any confirmed COVID cases. And that told us, with more confirmation and better data, now we have community transmission. We have more confidence now in this move."

Dolan says they’re looking at whether to close preschools and day cares.

“We’re taking a step-wise approach so our first call was for schools K through 12 and now we’re looking at preschool and day cares. Again, the reason we’re closing the schools is because of that large gathering aspect. A small gathering has a different risk factor than a large gathering so we’re going to think about that. In Vermont, there’s a lot more smaller day cares so we’re going to think about that. What’s the risk there? We don’t want to overstep where we don’t need to,” Dolan said.

Dolan says the health department is expecting guidelines on day care closures soon.

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