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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 Thursday, March 19

Cafeteria worker packs lunch
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Lakshmi Zourcy packs a lunch for delivery to local students from the closed Burlington High School cafeteria on March 19.

Vermont reporters provide a quick round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Thursday, March 19.


Number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont rises to 22

There are now 22 cases of COVID-19 in Vermont, according to the state health department. 

The new cases reported on Thursday include a female resident of Orange County in her 60s and a female resident of Bennington County in her 80s. Neither patient is hospitalized. 

The department also announced a Vermont resident tested positive at another state lab, but did not have further details about that case. 

The state has conducted a total of 667 COVID-19 tests. 

Liam Elder-Connors

Sec. of State Condos asks legislators to waive requirement that candidates for public office collect signatures to be on the ballot

Candidates for local and statewide office this year might not have to gather petition signatures to be on the ballot, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos.

Statewide candidates need to file 500 signatures. Candidates for the Vermont Senate need to file 100 signatures, and candidates for the Vermont House are required by law to have at least 50 signatures.

Condos wants legislators to waive those requirements for the 2020 election because of concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus. 

"We have fewer places where people are congregating," Condos said. "Pretty much any large conference or fundraising or whatever has been canceled, so it really puts a bind on candidates to try to get those signatures in place." 

Condos said dropping this requirement will probably result in more candidates being on the August primary ballot.

Bob Kinzel

Local blood banks also face shortages due to COVID-19

Blood drives are among the events being canceled amid concerns about COVID-19. 

VTDigger.org reports that Red Cross spokesperson Mary Brant said the blood shortage in northern New England is "entering the realm of severe."

At the University of Vermont Medical Center, blood bank medical director Sarah Harm said a shortage isn't being seen yet, but is expected. She said the hospital is already taking measures to conserve blood when possible. 

Amy Kolb Noyes

Pharmacists will now be able to make hand sanitizer onsite

State officials have loosened pharmacy rules to allow Vermont pharmacists to make hand sanitizer onsite. 

VTDigger.org reports compounding pharmacies were already allowed to mix up sanitizer. Now, the same permission has been extended to other Vermont pharmacies. 

For more about how Vermont distilleries are getting creative about producing hand sanitizer, head here.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Gov. Scott authorizes restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages with takeout and delivery

Governnor Phil Scott has authorized bars and restaurants to deliver alcoholic drinks and make them available to-go for people ordering take-out.

The directive allows certified employees over 18 to deliver alcohol — excluding mixed drinks — to addresses in Vermont. Someone of legal drinking age must sign for the delivery. 

The order will remain in effect through at least April 15.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Concern mounts that the COVID-19-induced border closure will hurt tourism

There is growing concern that the closure of the international border with Canada will hurt Vermont's tourism trade. Both countries agreed to restrict border traffic this week to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Commercial shipments are still allowed.   

Tom Torti, CEO of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that with ski areas and restaurants already closed, the state probably wasn't seeing much Canadian tourist trade right now anyway.

Torti said that will change later this spring and summer.

"If it goes into the season and restaurants are open and small inns and beds and breakfasts that make their money during the height of the tourist season are open, then the lack of Canadiant traffic to this region will be the second sucker-punch that will come out of nowhere," Torti said.

Torti added that many Canadian visitors from Quebec and Ontario stop in Vermont on their trips to other U.S. destinations. 

John Dillon

COVID-19 leaves some Vermonters uninsured

Health officials say that economic repercussions of COVID-19 are beginning to affect the insurance status of Vermonters. 

Michael Fisher, director of the Office of the Health Care Advocate, said "We have started to see our first calls of people who have lost their insurance because they've lost their job that gave them insurance, related to the COVID-19 virus."

Fisher said people who lose their insurance as a result of a job loss can enroll in plans sold on Vermont Health Connect. 

He says newly uninsured people can call Vermont Health Connect, or visit its website, to see if they qualify for financial subsidies. 

Peter Hirschfeld

Middlebury College offers to house emergency hospital beds in its hockey arena, if necessary

Middlebury College is offering up its hockey arena to be used for emergency hospital beds, if needed.

The Addison County Independent reports the college is removing the ice from Kenyon Arena in case the space is needed to erect a portable hospital. 

Middlebury President Laurie Patton emphasized that there is no immediate need and the college is just making sure the space will be ready, should a need arise.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Legislative leaders hope to know tonight if they will return next week to consider emergency legislation addressing COVID-19

Legislative leaders said they hope to know by the end of day on March 19 if lawmakers will return next week to consider must-pass legislation designed to address the new coronavirus.  

Many restaurant and resort workers were laid off this week when businesses closed their doors. Senate President Tim Ashe said a top priority is to help those workers by expanding eligibility for unemployment claims. 

"Then we might know more about whether any appropriation items or finance items are necessary," Ashe said. "We will only come back if there are things that are absolutely ciritical to get done immediately." 

The House has already passed an unemployment bill. Ashe said new legislation is needed to make the changes, and it cannot be done by the Scott Administration through an executive order. 

John Dillon

For more about federal efforts to provide relief to those impacted by COVID-19, head here.

Porter Hospital announces first case of COVID-19 in Addison County

Porter Medical Center has announced the first case of COVID-19 in Addison County. The patient was sent home to self-isolate following Centers for Disease Control guidelines

Earlier this week, a New York state resident tested positive at Rutland Regional Medical Center but was not hospitalized. Speaking on PEG-TV on Thursday, RRMC President Claudio Fort explained that his staff has been working for weeks to plan for more cases and is ready.

"The challenge for us is we don't have enough tests, despite the incredible efforts of the Vermont Department of Public Health to get those," Fort said.

As a result, what tests there are, are only being used for people most at risk. Fort said this is why social distancing has become so important. 

"I think some people have misconceptions that, you know, they've gone to work and they thingk they've been exposed and their employer says, 'You can't come back to work until you get a test,'" Fort said. "Unfortunately, we wish we could do that, but it does not work that way." 

The state is hoping to increase testing capacity soon. 

Fort said the two positive tests announced this week are not the cases Vermonters should be worried about. 

"The ones that we need to be concerned about are the ones that are out there now — and some of this have this and we don't know, and we're spreading it before we have symptoms," Fort said. "That's why we're practicing social distancing." 

He reminded everyone, including high school and college students now home, to practice social distancing. 

Nina Keck

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont expands coverage of telemedicine, COVID-19 testing

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont said it's taking major steps to help slow down the spread of the new coronavirus.

President Don George said the company is implementing several strategies to make it possible for many Vermonters to get essential health care services without visiting a doctor's office.

For example, BCBS, Vermont's largest private health insurance company, is expanding its tele-medicine services to respond to the new coronavirus. Additionally, most consumers will be able to receive a six-month refill supply of prescription drugs.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont says it will reimburse health care providers who decide that offering these services is a safer way of treating patients.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Vermont Director of Government, Public and Media Relations Sara Teachout said the new program will cover both video and telephone consultations and will also apply to all mental health and substance use services.

"We've all heard that visits in person may not be a good idea at this time, when we're all trying to self-isolate," Teachout said. "This enables people to continue to have those office visits with their providers without going in person."

Teachout also said that no co-payments or deductibles will be applied for cases related to COVID-19. George echoed this, saying all coronavirus tests will be free and there will be no out-of-pocket expenses for virus-related services. 

Bob Kinzel

Correction 10:30 p.m. This post has been corrected to show BCBS will allow most consumers to receive a six-month refill supply of prescription drugs.

Local credit union offers no-interest loans to members impacted by COVID-19

A local credit union is offering no-interest loans to members whose income has taken a hit as a result of COVID-19. 

Bob Morgan, CEO of North Country Federal Credit Union, said the institution is offering zero-interest loans of up to $5,000 to people with existing direct deposit accounts.

Morgan said many of the credit union's customers have lost work as a result of the new coronavirus.

"We wanted to do something to be able to help them through this difficult time, and thought it was a wise use of our organization's resources to do this," Morgan said.

The first payment on the loan isn't due for 120 days and people will have two years to pay off the loans. 

Morgan says the credit union offered a similar program during the government shutdown in 2018. He said all loans issued then were repaid in full.

Peter Hirschfeld

Ferry service between Charlotte, Vt. and Essex, N.Y. to be suspended

Ferry service between Charlotte, Vt. and Essex, N.Y. will be temporarily suspended starting at the end of the day on Thurs., March 19. 

A notice on the website of Lake Champlain Ferries states that traffic is significantly reduced, and the closing is necessary to focus resources at the Grand Isle-Cumberland Head crossing, where service will continue.

The notice stated, "We recognize this is not an ideal situation, however, these are highly unusual times."

Sam Gale Rosen

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

COVID-19 detected in at least one person on the floor at a recent UVM basketball game

At least one person on the floor at a recent tournament basketball game at UVM has tested positive for COVID-19.

A statement from the America East says the conference is aware of two people on the floor during tournament games who have tested positive.

The list of games that one or both of the two individuals attended includes the UVM Men's basketball game against University of Maine on March 7. 

Sam Gale Rosen

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

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