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As Massachusetts fights to control upticks in the coronavirus, a few other New England states, like Vermont, are reporting steady COVID-19 positive case numbers.
Some states, such as New Hampshire, are even reporting declines in their positive cases as they continue cautiously re-opening their economies.
Two state health commissioners from New England — Mark Levine of Vermont and Lori Shibinette of New Hampshire — joined WBUR's Morning Edition to talk about why their states are faring well while others falter.
Here are highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
On their respective states' low COVID numbers:
Mark Levine: "I think it's Vermontans cooperation, their compliance and their prioritization of health that has gotten us to where we are. That is really essential. Beyond that, Vermont was very deliberate in our re-opening until we felt we had a sufficient level of suppression of the virus in our state. And then finally, we've kind of had tourism and travel open up, if you will, on our terms, trying to make sure that we invite people but if there's a need for them to quarantine, we're very specific about that. And we've set very stringent levels."
Lori Shibinette: "We've had a significant amount of our focus on long-term care. It's our most vulnerable population. ... Our contact tracing is really spot on. We never stopped doing 100% contact tracing and even escalated it to a point where if we're not able to get in contact with someone that is COVID positive or is a close contact of someone that's COVID positive, we have a mobile team that we will send out to go to someone's house or try to find them in whatever way possible and get them in quarantine."
On mask polices and travel restrictions:
Shibinette: "There is definitely a strong recommendation for masks, but not a statewide mask mandate. So when we look at how are we going to be most effective in stopping the transmission, we're looking at some of those bigger events like Old Home Day or Motorcycle Week, where there is no assigned seating and people are in each other's space and you can't socially distance. That's where we're saying we're going to mandate a mask for a scheduled event like that that has over 100 people."
Levine: "We probably have the most restrictive travel map of anywhere because we do it on a county level throughout New England, throughout the Northeast, even a few states beyond that. ... We have a mask mandate in place now, but for the longest time, it was very strongly recommended. It was really, with a look towards the future, knowing that college students are returning to town, knowing that schools are going to be reopening, knowing that the fall foliage season, which is really critical to our economy, is going to happen with an influx of tourists. That's why we really wanted to implement the mass mandate to be very proactive at that point in time."
On Vermont loosening distancing restrictions in elementary schools:
Levine: "It's a 3- to 6-foot range for the younger grades. And the reason for that, number one, it's based in science. Number two, we feel very, very strongly in Vermont that the harms that could potentially be done to students at that age range for not resuming in-person instruction are greater than any harm that could come from resuming in-person instruction. We felt that we could very comfortably relax the range to 3 to 6 feet and make it easier for the school to have their students in the classroom but not compromise on public health."
How their states are preparing for a second wave:
Levine: "We're not relaxing immediately our emphasis on telework for those who are able to do that. We will continue that at least through the end of this calendar year and then we'll reevaluate. We haven't really overdone the reopening of bars and restaurants. Making sure that people have very simple guidance, understanding the four basic fundamentals of staying away if you're sick, washing your hands a lot, physically distancing and wearing a mask, certainly indoors and outdoors when you're unable to physically distance."
Shibinette: "We started a ventilation evaluation project for our nursing homes. We wanted to really evaluate whether some of the outbreaks that we've seen, was there a relationship to the sophistication of the ventilation system? So we're in the midst of that. From the very beginning, in March and April, we focused on ensuring we had hospital capacity. So we feel like we're in a very good position to increase capacity if we need to. And then right now, our focus is really on figuring out the logistics on how to be able to do vaccinations across the state when they're made available to us."
On why Massachusetts is struggling to contain the virus:
Levine: "I think one of the biggest 'dangers' — and some of the Massachusetts experience bore this out — had to do with travel. Neither of our states has a Logan Airport. So we didn't have to deal with that, even though we have an international airport in Burlington, certainly much lower traffic volume than would occur in Boston. And certainly Vermont at least doesn't have the population density in a city like Boston or a city like Springfield and Worcester."
Shibinette: "I think population density does have something to do with it. Boston is probably more poised to have to deal with that than some of the smaller states where two-thirds of New Hampshire are really rural areas where you don't have the population density that you have. You know, even some of your smaller areas in Massachusetts still have more population density than a number of areas in New Hampshire. ... But I will tell you, I was in Boston on Friday and I did not see a single person without a mask on."
This segment aired on August 14, 2020.
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