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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont Coronavirus Updates For Wednesday, March 18

Pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses the street.
Elodie Reed
On Burlington's now-quiet Main Street, a pedestrian keeps his social distance.

Vermont reporters provide a quick round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Wednesday, March 18.


University of Vermont Medical Center will no longer allow most visitors

The University of Vermont Medical Center will no longer allow most visitors, effective Wednesday evening.

There will be some exceptions, including for births and patients in end-of-life care — but visitors for those patients will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19.

There are currently 19 cases of the disease in Vermont.

UVM Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Steve Leffler said in a statement that while the restrictions to visitation ma be "unsettling," they are needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Liam Elder-Connors

Lawmakers consider changes to election procedures and public meeting law to accommodate social distancing

Lawmakers are considering changes to the open meeting law and election procedures to accomodate the "social distancing" required to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Windham Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, said one bill under consideration would allow the governor and secretary of state to change how this year's elections are conducted.

"The governor and secretary of state can consult and make a decision about the primary and the general elections, [and] if they should be allowed to have different provisions, like mailing out ballots instead of having people come to the polls and be crowded... in the gyms and stuff," White said.

The committee also considered a bill to allow public meetings to be held via phone or video conference. That is allowed now, but a space is still required for the public to be able to observe the meeting. The bill would waive that requirement. 

Legislative committees met by phone this week, and they invited members of the media and the public to listen in. Under the state constitution, however, they have to be physically present together to vote. 

- John Dillon

Green Mountain Transit announces further service changes in response to COVID-19

Green Mountain Transit announced additional changes to its bus service Wednesday. The downtown Burlington transit center's lobby is closed until further notice. Buses will stop at the center's platform. 

The Barre LINK Express service is suspended, and some morning purple line trips from the Burlington waterfront are suspended.

Yesterday, GMT announced it is waiving all bus fares at least through the end of the month. However, it is encouraging passengers to stay home if possible.

Amy Kolb Noyes

The United States and Canada agree to close the border to non-essential travel

President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday morning that the United States and Canada have agreed to close the border to all non-essential travel. 

The news was met with concern in northern Vermont, where the economies of border towns like Derby line rely heavily on Canadian visitors.

Nabil Ibrahim owns the Derby Corner Mini Mart, about a mile from the international line. He said Canadians make up about half of his business.

"A lot of the Canadians cross the border and buy gas, buy milk, buy beer, because it's cheaper here. So yeah, it's going to affect us," Ibrahim said.

More details are expected to be announced on the border restrictions in the coming days. 

For more about the border closure, head here.

Mark Davis

Public Utility Commission suspends cut-off of residential utilities service due to non-payment

Vermonters who are missing work due to COVID-19 don't need to worry about having their utilities turned off if they can't pay their bills. 

The state Public Utility Commission said regulated utilities shouldn't cut off residential service due to non-payment. 

That includes electricity, phone and natural gas providers.

The order is in place at least through the end of April.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Teachers, students and families transition to learning from home

Teachers, students and families across Vermont transitioned to learning from home today. 

Gov. Phil Scott ordered all of Vermont's schools to close to students to help slow the spread of COVID-19. That directive will last at least through April 6.

School districts around the state are pivoting to guide distance learning. 

Schools are also working to provide breakfast and lunch to students. Some schools are offering food to-go from summer meal sites. And in some places, like St. Albans, meals are being delivered to school bus stops.

Amy Kolb Noyes

For more advice and perspective on meals and learning amid school closures, tune in to Vermont Edition on March 19 at noon.

Grocery stores and retailers ask legislators for flexibility to expedite restocking

Panicky shoppers are cleaning out shelves at grocery stores around Vermont. One store owner — who is also a state senator — says he wishes people would use a little common sense and stop hoarding food and other products, like toilet paper. 

Senator Dick Mazza represents the Chittenden Grand Isle district. He's also the long-time proprietor of a general store in Colchester. Mazza told his colleagues this morning that his places has been picked clean of some essentials.

"Everybody's just grabbing everything. You know, the hamburger, I can't keep up with it because all the big stores don't have any, and I have some," he said. "I'm trying to limit it, but they just grab it, all I can grind."

Other senators also said they've heard from constituents about panic buying in stores. The Vermont Retail and Grocers Association has asked the state to ease weight limits on trucks so stores can be restocked as quickly as possible.

For one producer's experience shopping late-night at a Northeast Kingdom grocery store, head here.

John Dillon

Vermont's schools will serve as childcare centers for children of "essential employees"

Vermont's empty schools are being turned into childcare centers for parents on the frontlines of the state's response to COVID-19.

Gov. Phil Scott has ordered all Vermont schools to close until at least April 6. Additionally, districts will now be required to provide childcare to the children of health care workers, first responders and other "essential workers." 

Secretary of Education Dan French said that schools are rising to the challenge. 

"I think we've seen some really creative responses and really positive support of teachers stepping up to help assist in this moment of emergency, so it's going to be a challenge, but just one in a series of challenges that we're going to have to navigate," French said. 

Administration officials said the list of essential workers will soon include employees of grocery stores and people in the food-supply chain.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling said grocery stores will also be part of Vermont's critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 crisis. 

"Grocery store workers, folks who are distributing food and people in the supply chain that supply that food are essential people, so we expect additional guidance to be available as that list evolves over the course of the day," said Schirling. 

The list of essential workers also includes firefighters, members of the Vermont National Guard, educators and childcare providers.

For more updates about COVID-19 from the Governor, head here.

Gov. Phil Scott enlists two former state officials to help guide the response to COVID-19

Governor Phil Scott has enlisted two former government officials to help guide his administration's response to COVID-19.

Scott said former Chief of Staff Liz Miller and former Administration Secretary Neal Lunderville will help school districts navigate challenges associated with the forced school closures

"Liz, who served under Gov. Shumlin, and Neale, who served under Gov. Douglas, have a wealth of experience in state government and in the private sector and have already hit the ground running," Scott said.

Schools will have to provide remote learning opportunities for homebound students, and also figure out how to get food to low-income children. 

Schools are also being required to provide childcare for essential employees in Vermont, such as health care workers.

For more about Vermont's forced statewide school closures in response to COVID-19, head here.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Commissioner of Health says Vermont is on the verge of a substantial increase in COVID-19 testing capacity

Vermont Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said Vermont is on the verge of seeing a substantial increase in its COVID-19 testing capacity. 

Levine said national private-sector companies will soon be able to process samples mailed out by hospitals and health care facilities in Vermont. 

"But," said Levine, "I have to provide a realistic expectation that these national opportunities won't have the turnaround time we've come to expect locally, which is within 24 hours." 

Levine said national labs could take as long as 96 hours to return test results.

But he said the increased testing capacity will give health officials a clearer picture of how quickly COVID-19 is spreading through the state. 

- Peter Hirschfeld

Legislators work to expand unemployment benefits in Vermont in response to COVID-19

Lawmakers are revamping Vermont's unemployment laws to ensure paychecks for people who have to leave work because of COVID-19.

According to Commissioner of Labor Michael Harrington, under existing law, workers can't collect unemployment if they have to stay at home to care for a family member with COVID-19. 

"And that is something we are working with the Vermont Legislature [on] right now, to expand benefits to those that have to stay home with a family member who becomes ill or is quarantined or isolated," said Harrington.

The governor issued an emergency order earlier this week that allows workers to collect unemployment if they're advised by a doctor to self-isolate.

Lawmakers are considering other changes to the unemployment statute as well. 

Peter Hirschfeld

Local pet adoption agencies curtail their hours

Pet adoption agencies are among the businesses curtailing their hours due to the coronavirus. 

The Humane Society of Chittenden County will be open by appointment only for people looking to adopt or relinquish a pet. The shelter's pet food shelf will also be accessible by appointment. 

Other adoption agencies in the state have taken similar measures. 

Amy Kolb-Noyes

University of Vermont Health Network cancels all non-urgent procedures and appointments

The University of Vermont Health Network says it is canceling non-urgent procedures and appointments to free up capacity to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The order applies to all UVM Health Network facilities in Vermont and Northern New York. 

"We're moving as quickly as we can to open up as much capacity as we can and that's all in anticipation of an influx of patients with critical needs," said John Brumstead, CEO of the UVM Health Network. 

Brumstead said he's not sure how long the suspension of non-urgent appointments will last. 

Decisions about which procedures to delay will be made on a case-by-case basis. Facilities will reach out to anyone whose appointment is being delayed.

Health officials are working to contain a case of COVID-19 at a Vermont nursing home

Health officials are working to contain a case of COVID-19 at a nursing home in Vermont. 

A resident of Burlington Health & Rehabilitation Center tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. 

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said experts from his department have been at the facility this week.

"We have part of our public health team with skills in infection prevention actually going to the nursing home to actually work with them in their activities, and make sure that all the appropriate containment processes and prevention practices are in place," said Levine. 

Levine said residents of nursing homes are especially vulnerable to serious illness and death if they contract COVID-19. 

He says the facility with the COVID-19 patients had strict infectious disease protocols in place. 

Peter Hirschfeld

Governor concerned about health care workers getting through U.S.-Canada border closure

Gov. Phil Scott is hoping the closure of the U.S.-Canada border won't affect Canadian health care professionals who work in Vermont.

President Donald Trump announced the two countries agreed to temporarily close the border to non-essential traffic. Trump said the decision will not affect the flow of trade between the countries.

At a press conference Wednesday, Scott said he doesn't know all the details of Trump's order, but he has concerns.

“We have employees who live in Canada that are part of our health care system in the northeast region, and maybe even in the northwest region, so that's a concern,” Scott said. “I would think that maybe they qualify as being ‘essential.’”

Canada had already closed its borders to most countries, but not Americans.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Vermont State Police will now respond to some crimes over the phone

Vermont State Police will now respond to some crimes by taking statements over the phone in order to limit the potential spread of the new coronavirus. 

Troopers will still go to the scene when major crimes such as homicides or domestic assaults occur or to investigate missing persons. For smaller issues like thefts and vandalism, troopers will likely just take statements over the phone. 

Captain Garry Scott says supervisors will help make decisions about when to respond in person. 

"Be thoughtfull, think about what the situation is and how it can best be dealt with," Scott advised the public. "A phone call in could be the best way if it is an active situation and life and death are on the line here, we want people to know they should call and we will respond."

State police are also asking people to report crimes over the phone rather than by coming to the barracks in person. 

Liam Elder-Connors

Find a list of FAQs about the new coronavirus, plus resources, here.

Representative Welch voices support for $1 trillion federal stimulus package

Rep. Peter Welch said he hopes Congress will soon consider a massive stimulus package to help with the enormous economic problems caused by the new coronavirus.

Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C. are looking at a $1 trillion proposal that would allocate $50 billion to the beleaguered airline industry and roughly $500 billion for either a major payroll tax cut or to direct cash payments to all Americans. 

Welch said it is critical that the plan also addresses the specific needs of families and small businesses throughout the country.

"I think the focus has to be on stabilizing family finances and stabilizing state government, and those were things that we did to some extent but not enough in the last stimulus," he said. 

Republican and Democratic leaders are hoping to reach a consensus about the key elements of the plan by the end of the week. 

Bob Kinzel

For more about the White House's proposal to send checks to Americans in response to COVID-19, head here.

All three COVID-19 patients at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center are now in stable condition as hospital eyes $25 million in facilities upgrades

All three COVID-19 patients at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center are in stable condition and improving. 

The Bennington Banner reports that SVMC Chief Medical Officer Trey Dobson says that one of the patients is "looking to be discharged home."

All three patients are over 60, and all had been sick enough to require intensive care.

Additionally, a proposed $25 million project to modernize and nearly double the size of  the Emergency Department at SVMC is now under review. 

Officials say the proposal would be the first major upgrade the emergency room has seen in 25 years, reports The Bennington Banner

The proposal is an effort to accomodate the increase in number of patients treated annually in the department since 1996 from 15,000 per year to an average of 23,700 in the past few years.

The application outlines a need to modernize the emergency department, hospital main entrance and entry way, to address issues of overcrowding and create better operational flow. 

Sam Gale Rosen and Associated Press

Questions, comments, concerns or experiences you want to share about the new coronavirus? Fill out VPR's brief survey here.

N.H. Governor extends scope of unemployment benefits to soften the blow of COVID-19

New Hampshiure residents unable to work or facing reduced hours because of the coronavirus pandemic will have access to immediate unemployment benefits, as well as temporary protection from losing their homes or having their utilities shut off. 

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu issued several executive orders Tuesday, a day after he banned both large public gatherings and dine-in restaurant service.

He said the latter decision was made in part to prevent St. Patrick's Day revelers from flooding the state from Massachussetts, which enacted similar restrictions over the weekend.

For more about Gov. Sununu's executive orders, head here.  

- Associated Press

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