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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, April 16

Social distancing sign
Nina Keck
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VPR
Questions about what constitutes social distancing? It's a good idea to keep at least one cow-length between yourself and others.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Thursday, April 16.

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Labor Department hiring third-party vendor to process unemployment claims

The Vermont Department of Labor is turning to a private third party vendor to help with a massive backlog of unemployment claims.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said almost 80,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment due to job losses caused by the coronavirus, and the state expects that number to eventually reach 100,000.

Harrington said roughly half of all claims are being held up because of data errors. These claims then require staff time to resolve, so the state is hiring a third-party vendor to work through the logjam.

"We're trying to find some really big moves that we can make not incremental steps but large steps that we can make in the next day or two to help lighten the burden that Vermonters are facing right now,” Harrington said."We were able to secure a vendor, secure a contract, and start the process we think we can do that over the course of the next four or five days the technology piece and the training of their staff.”

Governor Phil Scott is expected to outline the details of the new program at his press briefing Friday.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont Arts Council awards $65K in emergency grants

Emergency funds for Vermont artists are beginning to flow.

Karen Mittelman, Vermont Arts Council's Executive Director, said this is largely due to alliances with organizations like the Vermont Community Foundation and the New England Foundation for the Arts.

In just the first week after opening the Rapid Response Artist Relief fund, Mittelman said the council received 183 requests for emergency assistance.

“And we’ve made 164 grants totaling close to $65,000,” she said. “With the new funding from the New England Foundation for the Arts, we’ll be able to re-open another grant round for artist relief on April 22.”

The Arts Council will also collaborate with the Vermont Council on the Humanities to disburse the funding Vermont has received through the Federal CARES Act.

- Betty Smith

For a story about a Rutland artist raising funds for local businesses, head here.

Federal Payroll Protection Program runs out of money

A massive federal program that helped businesses pay employees during the COVID-19 crisis is out of money.

Vermont Bankers Association President Chris D’Elia told lawmakers Thursday that the Paycheck Protection Program funneled $850 million dollars to about 4,400 employers. (Disclosure: VPR was one of those employers).

“We have seen every type of business come through the door, restaurants, landscapers, museum. You name it, we have seen folks come through the door,” he said. “Problem is, we're out of funding. So Congress knows the pressure's on them, the spotlight is on them and they've got to do something quickly. That may happen. Let's hope that it happens.”   

The PPP is designed for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and it offers loans and loan forgiveness if companies use the money to keep their employees on the payroll. And D'Elia said the program ran out of its $349 billion dollars without reaching all the Vermont companies that need help.

He added that whatever happens to the program, Vermont banks will work with their customers and not foreclose on loans if possible.

- John Dillon

Leahy appointed to president's task force for reopening economy

Sen. Patrick Leahy has been appointed by President Trump to a special bipartisan congressional task force that will make recommendations on the reopening of the country's economy.

Leahy, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he plans to take a cautious approach, and that reopening the economy too soon "risks plunging the nation into a deeper crisis."

Leahy also said he's hopeful that Congress will soon pass legislation adding several hundred billion dollars to a special program that provides funds for small businesses to keep workers on their payroll.

“We're negotiating, and negotiating both with the White House and with each other,” he said. “I'm beginning to see some movement. It can be done. If people really care about it, it can be done." 

Leahy said he hopes there can be agreement on this proposal by the end of the week.

- Bob Kinzel

State partners with Microsoft for Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas

Vermont is partnering with Microsoft and other companies to bring more than 30 public Wi-Fi hotspots to rural areas.

Installation started on Saturday at the first spot, in the Northeast Kingdom town of Wheelock.

Public buildings with existing broadband service can host the hotspot equipment. Microsoft is paying for the equipment and its installation in an effort to "bridge the broadband gap" during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release.

The hotspots are being installed in places the Vermont Department of Public Service has identified as having no publicly available Wi-Fi.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

Hours reduced at Vermont-Canada crossings

The Canada Border Services has cut back hours at some of its U.S. crossings, including three in Vermont.

The crossings are currently open to essential traffic only.

The CBC reports the Morses Line crossing north of Franklin, Vermont will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is not open to commercial traffic.

The crossings north of Enosburg Falls and North Troy, Vermont, are also now open only from 8-4.  

- Amy Kolb Noyes 

Five more COVID-19-related deaths in Vermont

The Vermont Health Department reported five more deaths from COVID-19 Thursday. That brings the total number of fatalities from the disease in the state to 35.

The state has administered over 11,500 tests and identified 768 cases of COVID-19. That's up nine cases from Wednesday.

There are now cases identified in every county in Vermont.

- Amy Kolb Noyes 

Two staff test positive for COVID-19 at Bennington nursing home

There are two positive cases among the staff at a hospital-owned nursing home in Bennington, with the results of many tests still pending.

Seven Days reports that the testing follows an earlier resident case at the Centers for Living and Rehabilitation, owned by Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

Hospital officials say they think the three people each contracted the virus in separate ways, and the results don't represent an outbreak within the facility.

Sam Gale Rosen

 

COVID-19 treatment, diagnosis to be covered at no cost to patients

Gov. Phil Scott has ordered private insurance companies to eliminate all costs for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, including copayments and deductibles. 

VTDigger reports that the rule can be retroactively applied to claims from March 13 onward, when Scott declared a state of emergency.

The new rules only apply to those with private insurance. Medicaid has already pledged to cover COVID-19 medical treatment retroactive to March 1, 2020.

Sam Gale Rosen

 

N.H. offers 25,000 front-line workers a pay boost

Workers at New Hampshire's Medicaid-funded nursing homes and those who serve Medicaid clients at home are getting a $300-per-week pay boost to keep them on the job during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Gov. Chris Sununu said Tuesday that about 25,000 front-line workers will be eligible. About 6,600 of them in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties will also be tested for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the state's congressional delegation said New Hampshire airports will receive $15.2 million through the federal coronavirus aid package.

- Associated Press

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