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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 26

The front door of Putney Family Healthcare is covered in warnings to visitors
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Putney Family Healthcare asks visitors to take precautions

Vermont reporters provide a quick round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Thursday, March 26.


Vermont sees a surge in unemployment

The number of Vermonters filing for unemployment benefits increased dramatically this week, due to layoffs caused by the coronavirus.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington is urging Vermonters who've lost their jobs due to the impact of the new coronavirus to file their unemployment claims online.

He said that in a normal week, roughly 150 Vermonters file for unemployment. 

In the space of two weeks, claims have jumped to almost 15,000, as of last Saturday's filing deadline, and the number is expected to grow in the coming weeks.

"We went from 659 initial claims to roughly 14,000 or 15,000 initial claims received," Harrington said. "Our goal and our hope is to have all of that backlog and then some uploaded into our system by the end of today."

Harrington said the state's telephone claims application is overwhelmed. He said it is faster and easier to use the department's website to file claims online.

"Right now, our electronic filing system is much more automated than it was last week, so we are able to capture much more of that information," Harrington said. "The easiest way and probably the least frustrating way is for people to file an electronic claim."

He expects the numbers will increase again next week after governor Scott called on all non-essential businesses to close down until further notice.

More information about the online claims process can be found at the Labor Department's website.

Bob Kinzel

Canada's CBC reports the U.S. is considering sending troops to the border

Canada's CBC reports the United States is considering sending troops to the northern border to stop illegal immigration, as part of the government's response to COVID-19. 

Deputy Canadian Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland responded to the reports, saying Canada would consider such a move "damaging to our relationship."

The CBC cited anonymous sources as saying the White House is considering placing 1,000 troops close to the U.S.-Canada border.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Farmers Markets will not be deemed "critical" under new order

Following the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont's request that farmers markets be in the "critical service" category under Gov. Phil Scott's Stay Home, Stay Safe order, Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said they are not. 

"Outdoor markets would likely attract large gatherings that would congregate close together," Tebbetts said Wednesday night. "There is risk of person-to-person contact when exchanging goods." 

He added the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets will work with farmers and market managers to set up mail, phone, pick-up and delivery services. 

NOFA-VT Executive Director Grace Oedel said her organization will continue to advocate for the Scott administration to change its mind.

"We are concerned both for eaters and farmers, as markets provide an important local food access point, distribute EBT funds to food-insecure families and also support farmers via direct sales," Oedel said. "We see a vast need to invest more in our local food system at this time, not move even more to relying only on large corporate grocery stores as our only food access."

Howard Weiss-Tisman

For more about how COVID-19 could affect farmers and farmers markets across Vermont, head here.

Food shelves prepare for heightened need

The drastic number of Vermonters who have lost jobs amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is driving up demand for programs like food shelves.

The state announced Thursday a record number of unemployment claims: nearly 15,000.

Rob Meehan, director of Feed Chittenden, said demand for the organization's services has increased by 30 percent. 

"We had a young woman in our parking lot in tears, she had been laid off from a local store and needed help with food for the first time," Meehan said. "We're seeing those cases daily."

Meehan said the organization has started to offer pick-up service at its food shelf and will deliver groceries to older adults and people with disabilities. 

Liam Elder-Connors

Vermont is expected to receive $2 billion in federal aid

Sen. Patrick Leahy said the state will receive $2 billion in new federal emergency aid to deal with the impact of the new coronavirus.

The money is part of the massive stimulus package passed by the Senate, which the House is scheduled to take up on Friday.

The bill includes $300 million in direct grants for the state, $260 million to help Vermont hospitals, special programs for businesses and one-time cash payments for most individuals. 

Leahy said Vermont desperately needs the financial assistance.

"We have so many people out of work," Leahy said. "We need to get our community health facilities, child care centers, food banks, they need help. We have our small companies that need help, and public health preparedness." 

The Senate unanimously approved the stimulus late on Wednesday evening.

President Trump is expected to sign the bill as soon as he gets it.

Bob Kinzel

Hear Congressman Peter Welch answer Vermonters' questions about the coronavirus.

COVID-19 crisis could affect redevelopment of Burlington's mall

Most construction projects in Vermont's largest city are on hold due to Gov. Phil Scott's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order. 

The directive, which took effect Wednesday night, ordered all non-essential businesses to suspend in-person operations in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said the construction freeze affects city and private projects.

However, Weinberger did not know the status of the massive redevelopment of the downtown mall. 

Weinberger said he will speak with Brookfield Properties, the developers, on Friday.

"The Stay Home, Stay Safe order has no impact on that project in the sense that it is not in construction, as everyone is well-aware," Weinberger said. "So there wouldn't be an impact from there, but [in terms of] this broader international crisis, it's too soon for me to say what kind of impact that's going to have on the project." 

Construction on the City Place Burlington project was slated to begin this summer. The redevelopment has been delayed for more than a year and a half. 

Liam Elder Connors

Leahy says Vermonters are getting mixed directives

Sen. Patrick Leahy said Vermonters would be much better off listening to pandemic response advice from Gov. Scott than from President Trump.

Scott has required all non-essential businesses to close down and in a recent press briefing, indicated that Vermonters need to be prepared to deal with this emergency for several months.

In contrast, the president said he hopes the national economy will soon be open and "raring to go."

Leahy said Vermonters are getting confusing messages.

- Bob Kinzel

Rep. Browning defends call for a quorum

More than 100 people gathered in the State House on Wednesday after one member called for a quorum as the Vermont House worked to pass bills aimed at addressing the coronavirus.

Rep. Cynthia Browning said she called for the majority of members to vote because she objected to a measure that sets up a remote voting system in the house. 

Browning defended her decision Thursday.

"I take democracy very, very seriously," Browning said. "I think if you start cutting corners because you say you have an emergency, even if you do have an emergency, you need to be careful about what you throw overboard."

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson objected to Browning's move. On Thursday, Johnson removed Browning from the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Henry Epp

Vermont sees a surge in flushed un-flushables

Sewage treatment plant operators around Vermont have a plea for everyone out there: be careful what you flush.

Amy Polaczyk, wastewater program manager for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said regular old toilet paper is designed to dissolve in water. That is not the case for so-called "flushable" wipes, paper towels or facial tissue, products that are increasingly clogging up treatment plants and home septic systems.

"That is an issue when it goes into your septic system," Polaczyk said. "The wipe just hangs out there, waiting to clog things up, same as in the collection system or the wastewater facility." 

Polaczyk  said sewage treatment plant operators are staffed with skeletal crews during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some are finding they need more people on-hand to unclog their systems. Cleaning the stuff out can be risky as well because of pathogens in the waste stream.

"It's a real exposure point also for operators," Polaczyk said. 

However, said Polaczyk, this isn't the only time Vermont's wastewater treatment systems see this sort of problem arise. 

"Every facility is susceptible to these problems, big or small, and not just through the COVID-19 crisis," Polaczyk said. "For years, there've been issues of flushing wipes and new pump stations being clogged and requiring a lot more maintenance than the town... had a budget for."  

What is the non-flush solution if you can't find toilet paper? Polaczyk advised keeping a plastic bag or garbage can in your bathroom and using that for any wipes or tissue, and to dispose of the material daily.

John Dillon

St. Albans Town Educational Center employee tests positive for COVID-19

The Superintendent of the Maple Run Unified School District said an employee of the St. Albans Town Educational Center has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Superintendent Kevin Dirth notified members of the school community on Thursday, March 26. He said the district has been advised that community spread of the disease is now happening all over the state, including in the St. Albans area.

Dirth said, "The Health Department has indicated that this case was community-acquired and will not be the only one." 

He did not identify the employee, citing confidentiality laws. 

Amy Kolb Noyes

Many auto repair shops remain open

Due to COVID-19, Vermonters are traveling less. However, since a reliable vehicle is still important, many maintenance and repair services remain open. 

White River Toyota Service Manager Aletia Potter said the business she works for is now offering services with minimal customer contact.

"[Customers will] be able to park in the customer lot, put their keys in a drop envelope, throw it through the door," Potter said. "They'll get a text message stating their car is done with a link to pay online. We can leave the keys back in the car for them, so they don't even have to enter the dealership for any service appointments." 

Potter said extra care must also be taken to sanitize the cars, but that most of the staff are just glad to be working. 

Betty Smith

Vermont Judiciary further restricts public access to courts

The Vermont Judiciary further restricted public access to the courts on Thursday, citing the growing threat of COVID-19. 

Under the new order, only participants in judicial proceedings will be allowed in courthouses. Registered media will also be allowed, but people are asked to stay at least six feet away from others. 

The order is the latest in a string of measures the judiciary implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

After declaring a "Judicial Emergency" last week, most superior court hearings were postponed. Defender General Matt Valerio said major cases are still moving forward.

"Everybody who has those cases has been working with the idea that there might even be a trial during the remote working environment," Valerio said.

The emergency measures will stay in effect until April 15, unless extended by the court.

Liam Elder-Connors

State shooting ranges to shutter amid COVID-19

State shooting ranges are among the places staying shuttered after Gov. Phil Scott's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order went into effect on March 25.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife announced Wednesday that the Hammond Cove Shooting Range in Hartland won't open for the season as planned. Instead, the department set a tentative opening date of April 16.

Amy Kolb Noyes

State develops protocol for businesses operating under new order

Most Vermont businesses and nonprofits were required to stop all in-person operations on Wednesday, March 25 under an order from the governor.

Certain businesses, like grocery stores and gas stations, are exempt from the order. 

The new directive is aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. There are now 158 cases of the disease and nine deaths in Vermont.

Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said her department is currently developing guidance for companies. Primarily, the order is aimed at in-person work.

"This means companies that can move all or part of their businesses to remote operations can continue to operate those parts of their business," Kurrle said. "Businesses that cannot transition functions to remote operation shall suspend those functions." 

Kurrle said restaurants will still be allowed to provide takeout and delivery service. 

The order also requires Vermonters to stay home, except for reasons "critical to health and safety."

Liam Elder-Connors

Got questions about Gov. Scotts new Stay Home, Stay Safe order? We've got answers.

Rep. Peter Welch bought more than $7,500 in COVID-19 testing stock at outset of pandemic

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch bought more than $7,500 in stock in a German film that produces COVID-19 tests, just as the pandemic was heating up less than a month ago.

Welch told VTDigger.org the purchase was made by his investment adviser and that he had no knowledge of it. 

Welch sold the stock on Tuesday and donated the profits to the Committee on Temporary Shelter — a Burlington-based organization serving homeless people.

The revelation comes after several other members of Congress have come under scrutiny about whether they used information not yet available to the general public to make COVID-19 related investment transactions. 

Henry Epp

GMCB seeks an extension for hospital budget reports

The Green Mountain Care Board wants to give hospitals a break from this year's financial reporting requirements.

Board chairman Kevin Mullin said hospitals should not have to put together budgets for next year while they're fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.

"What we can't say at this time is what this year's hospital budget process will look like, because we don't know when hospitals will have the resources to properly understand what the effects of the pandemic are on their budget for next year," Mullin said.

Mullin said the Legislature is working on a bill that would allow the board to change the timeline.

Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vermont House approves bills to address COVID-19

Bills to address COVID-19 were approved in the Vermont House after a procedural challenge delayed the voting. 

The House was set to vote quickly yesterday afternoon on bills that would allow remote voting by the Legislature, extend unemployment benefits and give heath care providers more flexibility to provide telemedicine. 

Arlington Democrat Cynthia Browning objected to the process, and repeatedly halted the proceedings by calling for a quorum — or voting majority — of the 150 members.

By late afternoon, more than the required 76 members were present and they quickly approved the bills and resolutions. 

John Dillon

For more about what was approved and the process by which the House moved forward, head here.

Businesses that ignore new order could be penalized

According to state officials, there could be penalties for businesses that continue in-person operations in defiance of the governor's recent executive order

The measure directs most businesses and non-profits to cease in-person operations and orders Vermonters to primarily stay at home. The executive order is aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19; there are now 158 cases in Vermont and nine deaths have been reported.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling said he believes most businesses will voluntarily follow the order.

Schirling said the order does not give law enforcement the right to stop people for being out of their house.

"Being out and about does not create a direct nexus for a violation of the executive order, so the two things don't directly connect," Schirling said.

Schirling said his department will issue guidance about the order to municipalities and local law enforcement.

Liam Elder-Connors

Got questions about Gov. Scotts new Stay Home, Stay Safe order? We've got answers.

For more from the governor's press conference on March 25, head here.

Domestic violence shelters and hotlines are open

Domestic and sexual violence survivors can access support services despite COVID-19 and Gov. Phil Scott's "stay at home" order.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott is the Executive Director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic And Sexual Violence. "We're very concerned about what might be happening behind closed doors," she said.

Shelters are open, she said, and are operating at reduced capacity to maintain social distancing. "We're working closely with the state to make sure that anybody who needs shelter can get shelter," she said, "either in one of the nine established domestic or sexual violence shelters, or in a hotel."

Gov. Scott's executive order to "stay home" includes an exemption for personal safety, and the Vermont State Police has confirmed that exemption allows anyone who is unsafe to leave home to seek refuge. Read the full story and locate resources for support here.

-Emily Corwin

Vermont's financial standing is strong, says Secretary Young

The state of Vermont is in good shape to handle the initial economic challenges caused by the coronavirus, according to Administration Secretary Susanne Young.

Young said the state's unemployment insurance fund is in good condition because Vermont has had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country for the past year -- and that's just part of the state's strong financial standing as this health emergency unfolds.

"I think the good news is that we went into this with a pretty strong financial position as the state of Vermont, we had strong reserves, we had a strong cash position which is going to serve us well, if ever we were well-positioned to at least start to meet the challenges ahead of us we've gone into this from a good place."

Young said she's also pleased that the state is expected to receive several hundred million dollars in direct aid from the new federal economic stimulus package.

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