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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 Tuesday, March 24

Signs on Fence
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
On Locust Terrace in Burlington, neighbors put up an "anti-viral art show" on a picket fence.

Vermont reporters provide a quick round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Tuesday, March 24.

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Gov. Phil Scott issues "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order

Gov. Phil Scott issued an order on the evening of Tuesday, March 24, directing all non-essential businesses and non-profits to end in-person operations, beginning at 5 p.m. on March 25. 

Scott is directing all residents to stay home. 

Residents may only leave for reasons "critical to health and safety."

Businesses and entities exempt from the orders include health care operations, grocery stores, pharmacies and the news media, among others.

Henry Epp

Read more about the governor's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order here.

10 patients to be moved from Burlington Health and Rehab

The Vermont Department of Health said that about ten short-term patients of Burlington Health and Rehab are being moved to adapted hotel rooms. 

All of the patients being moved show no signs of COVID-19, which has killed five people in the rehab facility to date. 

The patients will be cared for by clinicians from the University of Vermont Medical Center at the DoubleTree Hilton hotel in South Burlington until they are discharged home.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Advocates call for further reduction of Vermont's prison population

Advocates are renewing calls to reduce Vermont's prison population after the Department of Corrections announced its first COVID-19 case in a staff member.

The DOC said the staffer, who worked at the prison in Newport, did not have access to the inmate population. 

The DOC has decreased the state's inmate population by 89 since last week, but groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont are calling for more drastic measures.

Falko Shilling, advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont, said "The idea of being able to practice effective social distancing is one that can't take place in really confined quarters, so the way to effectively practice social distancing is to try to have fewer people inside these facilities." 

Shilling said the ACLU is advocating for measures like expanding furlough to reduce the prison population.

No inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, though the DOC is monitoring an inmate in Newport with symptoms. 

Liam Elder-Connors

U.S. Senate weighs a nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package

The U.S. Senate is on the verge of approving a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package.

The legislation includes individual checks for all Americans, grants and loans for small and large businesses, expanded unemployment benefits, additional funds for hospitals and direct payments to states to help them offset bif revenue reductions.

Congressman Peter Welch said the federal government should provide financial assistantce as quickly as possible to help the economy recover from the coronavirus.

"The goal is to help us be in a position to fight another day once we can all go back to work," Welch said. "This is a bill where the federal government has to be the one that's the backstop to our states, to our small businesses and to individuals." 

Welch says he hopes Congress can send a bill to the president by the end of the week. 

Bob Kinzel

Vermont State Colleges move online for the semester

All of the Vermont State Colleges are moving to online instruction through the end of the semester.

Chancellor Jeb Spaulding sent out word on March 24 to students throughout the state college system. He said residence halls will remain closed through the end of the spring semester.

Spaulding added that details about how students can get personal belongings and refunds for room and board will be forthcoming. 

Amy Kolb Noyes

Vermont legislators move forward with emergency bills in response to COVID-19

The Vermont Legislature is back in Montpelier this week, after leaving town March 13 due to concern that large public gatherings could expose people to the coronavirus.

The Senate met today to act quickly on several emergency bills to help people and businesses affected by the virus and its financial aftermath. 

The House will convene tomorrow to act on the bills, which cover healthcare, unemployment insurance and public meeting rules among other topics. 

John Dillon

Read the full report about the Vermont Senate's emergency session Tuesday here.

Vermont to freeze unemployment insurance tax rate

Vermont employers won't see an increase in their unemployment insurance tax rate, even though the number of Vermonters seeking benefits is expected to increase dramatically in the coming weeks.

Usually a business's tax rate is tied to their unemployment experience, but legislation passed by the Vermont Senate on Tuesday effectively freezes next year's rate at pre-coronavirus levels.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said this measure is an important way to help small businesses during a difficult time.

"That would allow us to essentially freeze the tax rate for employers, so that any impact that occurred out of this pandemic would not impact their tax rate," Harrington said.

The Vermont House is expected to approve a number of coronavirus-related bills when they return to the Statehouse on Wednesday, March 25. 

Bob Kinzel

Childcare providers adapt to serve "essential" workers

Schools and child care centers around Vermont are now providing care to children of workers deemed essential in the state's response to COVID-19. 

For Apple Tree Learning Centers in Stowe, that means caring for 20 children each day, including several children who are new to the center.

Owner Sonja Raymond said the changes have put stress on staff, parents and children.

"It's a little discombobulating," Raymond said. "We're taking in some new families and [it's] always difficult for children to come. Normally, we would have a fairly comprehensive transition for a student to come in." 

Raymond said the center is not requiring payment for children who are not coming in, though she's asking parents to voluntarily continue their payments if possible.

Henry Epp

For more about how Vermont child care centers are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic, head here.

Green Mountain National Forest closes offices, not trails amid COVID-19

The Green Mountain National Forest is closing its offices to the public in response to COVID-19. However, visitors are still welcome in the forest and the Rutland, Rochester and Manchester offices can still be reached by phone. 

Visitors to the forest itself are asked to practice social distancing and other precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

There are two areas that are off-limits to visitors, but not due to coronavirus. 

The Rattlesnake Cliff Area in Salisbury and the Mount Horrid/Great Cliff Area in Rochester are closed until Aug. 1, 2020 to protect nesting peregrine falcons.

Amy Kolb Noyes

For more about what Vermont's "Essential Persons" list is for and who is on it, head here.

Vermont newspaper revenue hit hard by COVID-19

The newspaper Seven Days announced this week that it was laying off seven employees, while the Williston Observer has launched a GoFundMe page.

Fred Rutberg, president of New England Newspapers, which publishes The Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal, said COVID-19 has slashed advertising revenues and hurt an already struggling industry. 

"What we're doing about it is we're reporting the story of the century right now and as best we can, doing our job and fulfilling our mission to inform the communities," Rutberg said.

Last week, The Rutland Herald and Barre Times Argus laid off 20 staffers for a two-week period and reduced publications from five to three times a week. 

Nina Keck

For more about how COVID-19 is affecting Vermont newspapers, and how some are getting creative about providing coverage in the face of revenue loss, head here.

National Guard to establish three overflow medical facilities

Vermont is asking the National Guard to help establish three overflow medical facilities around the state. 

Gov. Phil Scott announced the move at a press conference on Monday, March 23.

"I've directed the National Guard and our state med surge team to work with the state EOC to put up the first of three medical surge sites," Scott said. "While we hope we don't have to use them, we must be prepared for this possibility." 

National Guard spokesman Captain Mike Arcovitch later confirmed to Seven Days that the National Guard has been instructed to begin setting up medical facilities at three locations:

The University of Vermont's Gutterson Fieldhouse, the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center in Saint Albans and the Barre Civic Center. 

Sam Gale Rosen

Vermont announces seventh fatality related to COVID-19

There have now been seven fatalities in Vermont attributed to the new coronavirus.

According to a Department of Health spokesperson, one of the latest deaths occurred at Burlington Health and Rehab, where there's been an outbreak of the disease. Five patients at that facility have died to date.

The other newly-announced death was one of the first cases of COVID-19 in Vermont.

The latest numbers from the health department show 95 positive test results in the state.

There are now cases of COVID-19 in every county in Vermont, except Essex and Grand Isle counties.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

State looks to ease up in hospital permitting regulations

State regulators want to make it easier for hospitals to take on construction projects that will help battle the COVID-19 crisis.

Presently, any time a hospital wants to add a wing or renovate a unit, administrators must first obtain a Certificate of Need from the Green Mountain Care Board.

The process typically takes months and includes public hearings that give supporters and critics a chance to weigh in.

Now the Green Mountain Care Board is proposing an emergency review that would eliminate the public process and give the board authority to decide on a project within 24 hours.

Under the proposed rule, the project would have to "support or enhance the state's ability to manage the COVID-19 public health emergency." 

The board is also proposing that it should have the authority to review projects without notice after receiving a letter from the hospital with details about the project, including the start date and resources the applicant might need to complete the work.

Under the proposed process, the board will then issue a written response within five days, even after giving verbal approval within 24 hours.

The new rule would only be in effect until the state's public health emergency is lifted. If a hospital wanted to continue using the equipment or facility built through this process, a proper certificate of need hearing would have to be held. 

The Green Mountain Care Board will discuss the proposed change at its meeting Wednesday. 

Sign up to receive additional email updates about the new coronavirus from VPR, here.
 
- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Burlington approves funding for COVID-19 response

Vermont's largest city has approved a plan to spend $1 million on COVID-19 relief efforts. The Burlington City Council unanimously approved the measure at its meeting on the evening of March 23, which was held by video-teleconference.

The funds will be used to cover the expenses of the city's emergency operations and its COVID-19 resource center. Mayor Miro Weinberger said some of the money might also be used for other issues that emerge during the COVID-19 crisis. 

During a video press conference before Monday's council meeting, Weinberger outlined how the new resource center would operate. He said the main purpose is to connect residents with services like unemployment and housing assistance.

"It would be crazy for anyone to be evicted during an economic crisis and public health crisis that, again, requires people to stay at home," Weinberger said.

Weinberger previously called on landlords to halt evictions, but there is no formal order in place. 

The funds for the efforts will come from money the city got when it sold Burlington Telecom.

The resolution passed Monday also included measures aimed at easing the economic hit on taxpayers and businesses. One provision would allow residents "significantly impacted" by the crisis to delay paying taxes until August, and another lets businesses delay paying the city's gross receipts tax. 

Liam Elder-Connors

Burlington's mayor calls for evacuation of Burlington Health and Rehab

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said the state should evacuate some residents from a burlington nursing home dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19. 

There are 15 cases of the disease associated with Burlington Health and Rehab, and so far, four residents have died.

Weinberger said residents on floors where there are no cases of COVID-19 should be removed from the facility.

"Commissioner Levine must get the patients in the rehabilitation floor that has not yet been infected out of the building to a safe place where their medical needs can be accomodated, and where there is no risk of contaminating other sensitive populations," Weinberger said. "I know this is a complicated task — that's why it's been taking time — but it has to happen."

The Health Department said Burlington Health and Rehab has been taking steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The facility is also checking the temperature of all staff before they enter the building.

Liam Elder-Connors

Grocers urge shoppers to forego reusable bags

Vermont Retail and Grocers Association is urging customers to leave their reusable bags at home until the COVID-19 emergency is over. 

The Centers for Disease Control has issued warnings that the coronavirus can remain active on surfaces like these bags for a period of time. Several states, including Maine, have banned them.

Vermont Retail and Grocers Association President Erin Sigrist asked consumers to take their goods home in plastic bags for the foreseeable future.

"We would encourage our customers to leave their reusable bags at home for right now," Sigrist said. "We only ask this... to ensure the safety of everyone involved, as we don't know where we might contract COVID-19 as we are out and about." 

Sigrist is asking consumers who continue to use their reusable bags to pack their groceries themselves rather than relying on a store employee to do so. 

Bob Kinzel

New Hampshire reports its first COVID-19 related death

New Hampshire has had its first confirmed COVID-19 related death. State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan said the person who died lived in Hillsborough County, was over the age of 60 and had underlying health conditions.

"This is the exact group of individuals that is at highest risk for serious COVID-19 related complications, such as hospitalization and even death," Chan said.

Chan said the state now has 101 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and that 11 people in New Hampshire have been hospitalized due to COVID-19, so far.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he expects that number to dramatically increase. 

On Monday, March 23, Sununu banned all gatherings in the state of more than 10 people. He told reporters Monday that he didn't think New Hampshire needed to take the step of ordering residents to remain home, as some other states have done.

Sununu said New Hampshire and nearby states are taking what he termed a "regional approach" when it comes to addressing COVID-19 through social distancing.

"Again, we are on the same page as those other states," Sununu said. "I understand the concept of 'shelter in place,' but... if you look at what's going on in a state like Conn., for example, virtually all of the businesses are open. They are not preventing people from going out. They are not preventing people from accessing most of their public places. We are doing the exact same thing here." 

The mayors of Manchester and Nashua have both called on Sununu to issue a shelter-in-place order.

Sununu said he believes banning all gatherings of more than 10 people will help protect people from COVID-19.  He said he'd consider tightening restrictions if people don't act responsibly. 

Henry Epp

For the latest measures taken by Vermont's governor to limit the spread of COVID-19, head here. 

Staffer at Vermont's biggest prison tests positive for COVID-19

The Vermont prison system has its first reported case of COVID-19. The department announced Monday that a staff member at the state's largest prison, in Newport, has tested positive.

Interim Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said the staffer did not have access to the inmate population, and that their last day of work was March 17.

Currently, none of Vermont's inmates have been tested for COVID-19, though Baker said one inmate with symptoms is being monitored in quarantine in Newport.

"We are monitoring that situation and following medical protocol from the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health," Baker said. "At the point where our medical staff determines they need to be tested, we will test them." 

Baker could not say if the inmate is being quarantined in a location usually used for disciplinary segregation. 

"We operate a $20 million a year healthcare system," Baker said. "We are one of the largest health care delivery systems in the state, inside the prison system. We have plans in place so that if we do have a positive test, we have the ability to treat folks and we have geared up for that." 

Restrictions that bar all in-person visits remain in place at all Vermont corrections facilities. 

 
Emily Corwin

State officials aim to expand access to wifi hotspots

The State has put together a list of wifi hotspots around Vermont, so that people who need access to the internet for work or school can get online.

Telecommunications Director Clay Purvis said not everyone has access to high speed internet in Vermont, and the idea is to let people know about the resources that are available in public places. 

"We tried to target hot spot speed connections that could be accessed from a parking lot, in a parked car," Purvis said. "We are discouraging people from going into a building [to access wifi], given the COVID-19 emergency."

Purvis said internet service providers in Vermont have promised to suspend disconnections and open up more wifi hot spots. some carriers have also offered low-cost or free services geared to school children and their parents, who may not have access to the internet.

John Dillon

For more about how Vermonters are looking to the internet for community during the COVID-19 emergency, head here.

Local companies watch as COVID-19 impacts global supply chains

Though coronavirus is just starting to wreak havoc here in Vermont, local companies have been watching the dominoes in their supply chain fall for many weeks. 

Burlington-based Burton Corporation manufactures snowboard boots and bindings in China. Their global supply chain took its first hit a month and a half ago, when the Chinese government extended their New Year holiday for an additional week to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"And then the large quarantine started to go into effect," Chris Cunningham, senior vice president of global product at Burton, said. "Even if a factory could open, their return of workers was limited." 

After nearly a month of lost manufacturing in China, Cunningham said things are getting back to normal in the East — just as COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in the West. For example, Burton's snowboard and clothing factories in Europe, Peru and Burlington, Vt., have now closed.

With China back on line, Burton now has shipping containers full of gear heading West on cargo ships. Cunningham said he doesn't know what will happen to them. 

"First my attention was... [on] focusing on the supply chain itself, and getting the product built and shipped. Now it's like, 'Oh gosh, am I going to be able to receive this product into each region?'" Cunningham said.

Burlington isn't the only global corporation in Vermont on this roller coaster. OnLogic makes extra-rugged computers. Their cofounder told VPR that their supply of components is just getting back on track. 

And as the global marketplace continues to shift with the spread of COVID-19, the next hurdle may be customer demand in this new economy.

Emily Corwin

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