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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 31

Movie Theater Marquee
Amy Kolb Noyes
At the Bijou Cineplex in Morrisville, the message on the marquee was clear on March 28: Wash your hands, stay home and practice social distancing.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Tuesday, March 31.


Burlington makerspace could make 100 face shields per day

While Vermont looks to the federal government to bring in more medical equipment like ventilators and masks, some groups in Vermont are working to supplement those supplies.

That includes Generator, a makerspace in Burlington.

Executive Director Meg Hammond said they're making prototypes of face shields that could be used by medical workers at UVM Medical Center.

"The face shield is intended to go over a nurse or a doctor's head. It is adjustable for all sizes," Hammond said. "It comes with a headband and a plastic visor that is put together with a few snaps and an elastic band." 

Hammond said Generator could make about 100 face shields per day, if they're approved for use by the hospital. 

Henry Epp

Hear Henry Epp's full interview with Generator's Meg Hammond by heading here.

State asks big box stores to stop letting in customers for non-essential purchases

Vermont's Agency of Commerce and Community Development says big box stores need to stop letting customers in to buy non-essential items.

In statement Tuesday afternoon, the agency said stores like WalMart, Target and Costco need to close off shoppers' access to non-essential items and only sell those products over the phone or online, with delivery or curb-side pickup.

Non-essential items include clothing, electronics, furniture and more.

Customers are allowed inside those stores to buy food, drugs, animal feed and other items deemed essential in Gov. Phil Scott's executive order.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

Vermont Senate likely to return to Statehouse next week

The state Senate is likely to return to Montpelier next week to work on a bill that would allow senators to vote remotely.

Senate President Tim Ashe said the plan is for a limited number of senators to gather in Montpelier next Tuesday. A big issue with remote voting, he said, is bringing all the senators up to speed with the needed technology.

“The sooner we give ourselves the flexibility, the better,” Ashe said. “And that will force us to figure out the technology.”

He said next week Senators could consider remote voting, and any other non-controversial bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Vermont House has already passed a resolution authorizing remote voting. But the resolution also requires members to vote separately on a bill to actually use it.

- John Dillon 

Vermont educators, students grapple with challenges of online learning

Teachers and students in Vermont are grappling with online learning even as parents try to work at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Deputy Education Secretary Heather Bouchey said it's a stressful time for families, and that educators do not at all expect students will get the full course of study at home that they would normally receive in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

"That is impossible. That is impractical, and that is not what we are supporting," Bouchey said. "What we are supporting is, 'Please identify what the essential, critical learning elements are that students need from here on out, to get to the next level when fall is here and school opens.'" 

Vermont Principals’ Association executive director Jay Nichols said the slow broadband in parts of Vermont is also a challenge for parents and students.

“We need to remember that we're asking families to work from home, if they can, to not have anyone help essentially, because of the social distancing, and to oversee their kids' schooling for months,” he said. “Parents are not trained for this. It's causing stress on an already very strained family-structure dynamic. We hear that repeatedly from principals. The biggest issue … is home access for many families for internet.”

Nichols added the so-called digital divide between families who have access to broadband and those who don't is one of the biggest inequities in education today.

Bouchey and Nichols testified Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee. The panel is looking at the state's internet broadband service and whether it's adequate to serve the needs of stay-at-home students.

John Dillon

For more about efforts underway to expand internet access in Vermont, head here.

Vermont's accountable care org wants to give hospitals financial boost

Vermont’s accountable care organization wants to give hospitals a financial boost while they battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CEO of OneCare Vermont will ask the Green Mountain Care Board to approve a waiver that would provide immediate relief to hospital payments into the statewide OneCare system.

OneCare will make that request Wednesday at the Green Mountain Care Board meeting.

In a letter to the board, OneCare CEO Vicki Loner said these are unprecedented times, and that every effort should be dedicated to the task at hand.

OneCare is also asking for changes in its budget moving forward to better reflect the hardships hospitals are expected to experience in the coming months.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vermont's pension fund takes a hit due to COVID-19

State Treasurer Beth Pearce said the recent drop in the stock market has had a significant impact on the state's pension funds. 

Pearce said she is confident the funds will regain value in the coming years, and that it's important to remember that investments in the state employees' and state teachers' retirement funds are made based on long-term financial strategies.

"Defined benefit plans are built around the concept of a long-term investment profile," Pearce said. "When we are looking at our investments, we're looking at a 30-year horizon." 

She added the state can comfortably meet its financial obligations in the coming months, despite the significant revenue shortfall caused by the coronavirus.

Pearce said Vermont's strong cash flow position will ensure that her office pays state employees, retirees, towns and vendors who do business with the state. 

"We've extended out the payment projections and the cash flow projections for several months, so if this continues for a month or two, we believe we have sufficient cash to meet all of our obligations," she said.

Pearce said she's also working with the Scott administration to address ways to improve Vermont's bond rating. 

Bob Kinzel

Mt. Ascutney calls for donations of PPE ahead of COVID-19 surge

With the expected COVID-19 surge just two or three weeks away, staff at Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor worried their supply of personal protective equipment wouldn't be enough. 

The hospital has put out a call for donations. 

Ascutney CEO and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph Perras said the response included masks, scrubs and even a resuscitation system on-loan from Ludlow Ambulance Service. 

"It's really gone from, you know, a neighbor, a friend of a neighbor, who is sewing a handful of masks to, for example, the local Home Depot in Claremont, New Hampshire, which donated ... over 250 N95 masks," Perras said. 

He said preparations and donations will continue in whatever time the hospital has left before the surge of COVID-19 patients in need of in-patient care hits. 

Betty Smith


Vermont sees an early-season seed shortage

There's been an early-season run on seeds this year. 

Gardener's Supply Company CEO Jim Feinson credited COVID-19 with sparking a renewed interest in growing vegetables at home. 

"You know, with outages of products at grocery stores, [seeds are] also a 100 % safe, because the only one who's handled the crops that are grown are [the customer] themselves," Feinson said. "It's also a great economic way to grow your own fresh food." 

However, despite the heightened demand, COVID-19 safety measures like frequent disinfecting and social distancing have made it harder to re-supply. 

Feinson expects another spike in demand when it's warm enough to plant directly in the garden. 

Betty Smith

For more about how COVID-19 is affecting Vermont vegetable and flower farmers, head here.

Senate Education committee aims to protect and adapt special education

The Senate Education committee will be looking at ways to ensure that important programs are still available to special education students in the coming months.

Gov. Phil Scott has closed all public schools for the rest of the school year, and all schools have two weeks to submit their online learning plans to the Agency of Education. 

Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe wants to be certain that special education programs are a key part of the conversation.

"Many of those kids are now back at home with their parents, so the question is how do we make sure there's no drop off in those really extraordinary circumstances," Ashe said.

It is likely that the Senate Education Committee will be meeting later this week to work on a proposal. 

Bob Kinzel


Chittenden judge temporarily halts evictions and foreclosures

A judge in Vermont's largest county is halting eviction proceedings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Superior Court Judge Helen Toor's order defers evictions until after the Judicial Emergency declared on March 16, which currently lasts until mid-April. The order only applies to cases in Chittenden County Civil Court.

In her order, Toor wrote that "we are in unprecedented times," and she said that forcing people to seek housing or become homeless could increase the spread of COVID-19. Exceptions can be made in emergencies, or if it can be proven that the eviction won't cause anyone to become homeless.

The order also halts foreclosure sales for the next 90 days. 

Liam Elder-Connors


Dartmouth-Hitchcock conserves PPE, anticipating ICU surge

In order to preserve personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, New Hampshire are making new kinds of decisions. 

The hospital's Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Ed. Merrens, said some doctors are choosing not to use certain equipment or are doing procedures with fewer staff. 

"Sometimes physicians are saying ... we can do this procedure just as safely, just as effectively, but ... with one less person in the room," Merrens said. 

Merrens referred to COVID-19 as a tsunami, and said Dartmouth-Hitchcock is bracing for a surge in ICU patients over the next 10 days. 

"This is just looking around and seeing that other people's ICU's are beginning to fill up, and we should be expecting the same," he said. 

Merrens said surges in ICU demand in Southern New Hampshire and at UVM Medical Center will likely hit Dartmouth-Hitchcock soon. 

Emily Corwin

Read more about how hospitals are readying for COVID-19 patients by rescheduling elective surgeries here.

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