Gov. Phil Scott announced another step toward getting life in Vermont a bit closer to normal again, now that state modeling has shown the peak of its COVID-19 crisis is in the rearview mirror.
An order from the Republican, which took effect upon his signature Monday, said non-emergency medical appointments can now resume. Most had been on pause, to allow for Vermont's health care system to brace for and respond to COVID-19.
The governor's directive allows for routine visits to clinics, diagnostic procedures like mammograms, and elective surgeries that don't require overnight hospital stays.
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"Circumstances may change and these services may need to be suspended again in the future if the Department of Health has determined a COVID-19 outbreak has occurred," cautioned Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont's health commissioner.
All patients do need to be screened for symptoms and wear mouth and nose coverings, Levine added. Medical offices have to follow safety rules, too, like spacing waiting room chairs far apart, providing hand sanitizer, and using telemedicine if it's appropriate.
Other, more complex procedures, such as a hip or knee replacement, still must wait, Scott noted. Decisions are being made in regular consultation with a range of health experts, he added.
Loosening some of the restrictions on in-person contact follows Vermont's more aggressive COVID-19 testing and tracing plan.
"As we find an outbreak—it's like a brushfire—we're able to put it out, before an out-of-control forest fire erupts," Scott said Monday, describing the approach to contact tracing and testing.
Dr. Steve Leffler at the University of Vermont Medical Center explained hospital staff will be contacting patients to get them back into the system. Leffler pointed out it may take until the middle of next week for some patients to see their provider.
"This is great news," Leffler said in an interview with NECN Monday, adding that many of UVMMC's patients have been waiting since mid-March for appointments to safely resume.
Having announced a $44-million loss in March alone, the UVM Health Network said last week it is in a hiring freeze and cut pay to leadership for the rest of the fiscal year.
Those financial problems were due in large part to the hold on non-emergency patient visits and costs preparing for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients, the hospital said last week in a news release.
"We want to do these [appointments and procedures] because our patients need them and we're here for them for that," Leffler said. "But this will clearly help our financial situation on top of doing it because our patients need it."
Levine said if state efforts to slow the virus work, then other appointments can start to reopen, too, like eye care visits and dental visits.
Scott hinted to reporters that he'll be rolling out more reopening plans throughout the week.