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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 Wednesday, May 20

Carrie Chalmers Design crew members wear masks, garden
Peter Crabtree
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VPR
Carrie Chalmers Design crew members wear masks as they tend a garden in Dorset.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Wednesday, May 20.

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Vermont Department of Health clarifies drop in reported total tests for COVID-19

The Vermont Department of Health reported no new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday. Three people remain hospitalized with confirmed cases of the disease in Vermont, and 12 people are hospitalized under investigation, meaning they are suspected to have COVID-19 but their cases have not been confirmed.

The state reported no additional deaths, and 824 people are known to have now recovered from the illness.

In total, the Health Department reports it has conducted 25,058 tests for the new coronavirus. 

Over the weekend, the number of reported tests completed dropped by more than 1,000. 

According to a statement issued by the Department of Health this week on its online dashboard, that drop was due to a May 16 change in the way tests are reported.  

The total tests no longer includes serology tests (also known as antibody tests) that were being reported by some labs across the state. The 25,058 tests reportedly completed to date now reflects only people who were tested for a current COVID-19 infection.

"We learned that approximately 4% of the labs that were being reported were these serology sort of labs," Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a thrice-weekly press conference Wednesday morning. Levine said the state became aware of this reporting practice "a week or two ahead of" May 16, saying health officials didn't feel the serology tests accounted for a large amount of the data.

Levine said other states have also recently uncoupled serology testing data from tests for active cases of COVID-19. 

"Practically speaking, when you look at our data, it hardly changes anything that you're seeing. If anything... it would have made it look like we had an even lower positivity rate for all of our tests." 

Levine said Vermont's positivity rate was already in the very low single-digit numbers, so the impact of removing the serology test, at most would have been "within a fraction of a percent positivity." 

"It would have had very little impact on the data people see day-to-day, and really didn't impact our policy or future planning with regards to how we are dealing with the COVID pandemic," he said.

Abagael Giles

More from VPR: Llama Antibodies Neutralize Virus That Causes COVID-19, New Research Shows

Gov. Scott proposes allocating $50 million in federal aid to Vermont dairy farms

The state's dairy industry would get a big boost under a financial aid package proposed by Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday. 

Scott wants to use $50 million of $400 million in federal coronavirus relief money to help dairy farms and milk processors. Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said many farms are on the edge, as milk prices crashed when demand dropped during the pandemic.

"Right now, it's about survival and challenges, and I can assure you that the agency, the governor and the team at commerce and everyone in state government is going to fight for the survival of every single farm," Tebbetts said. "I don't care if you're milking 50 corws somewhere, [or] if you're milking 500 somewhere. We're going to do what we can to get them the resources from the state level." 

The money could be used to cover a farm's operating costs, such as mortgage payments, utility bills or feed bills.

More from VPR: Farmers Seek Financial Help As COVID-19 Piles New Pressure On An Already Stressed Industry

John Dillon

Agency of Education will support alternative, socially distant graduation ceremonies

The state is asking high schools to get creative as they plan graduation ceremonies this year.

The Agency of Education said it will support alternative graduation ceremonies if they conform to social distancing requirements for health and safety.

Education Secretary Dan French announced earlier this month that traditional graduation gatherings would not be allowed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But in a memo sent out this week, French said holding parades or ceremonies at drive-in movie theaters, for example, would be considered. 

If graduates leave their car to pick up a diploma, they will need to wear a mask, and attendees would have to remain in cars under the agency's safety guidelines. 

Howard Weiss-Tisman

State aims to transition homeless Vermonters out of motels

Housing groups are urging the Legislature to quickly fund permanent housing measures for homeless individuals currently sheltered at motels.

The Department for Children and Families said it's still developing plans to transition homeless people sheltered at motels to more permanent housing. 

More than 1,800 individuals have been staying at motels since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said the state plans to use coronavirus relief funds to transition people out of motels between now and December. 

"[We'll be] Providing housing navigation and support, rental assistance and using CRF funds to provide those services to transition as many people as we can out of motels before Dec. 31," Schatz said.

But housing groups say more action is needed and quickly and are also urging the Legislature to secure funds to acquire hundreds of units into which people at motels could be moved.

Jennifer Hollar, with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, said if the state commits now to providing $21 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, about 200 units could be secured to house the homeless.

"A housing project typically takes two or three years," Hollar said. "We need a signal and an assurance in some way that funding is going to be there so folks can go out and get started on this work." 

Hollar said in order for projects to be eligible for the relief funds, they need to be completed by the end of the year.

Liam Elder-Connors

The University of Vermont Health Network is now scheduling non-urgent outpatient procedures

The University of Vermont Health Network announced a step toward normalcy today. Medical practices have begun scheduling non-urgent and elective outpatient procedures and appointments that do not require a hospital stay. 

The first appointments are those previously postponed due to COVID-19. Providers will be reaching out to patients to reschedule. 

UVM Health Network said it aims to operate at about 60% of normal capacity for several weeks to enable social distancing and conserve personal protective equipment.

More from VPR: Gov. Scott Allows Some Elective Surgeries, Outpatient Care To Resume

Amy Kolb Noyes

Five test positive for COVID-19 at a Mississippi prison that houses Vermont inmates

Five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the private prison in Tallahatchie County, Miss., where Vermont incarcerates roughly 250 people.

According to the Department of Corrections, the inmates with COVID-19 were in the same unit but not the same pod as the Vermont inmates. 

The pods are separated by glass barriers and use separate air systems.

In Vermont, DOC has announced it finished testing at the prison in St. Johnsbury, where one staff member tested positive last week. The tests revealed no new cases of COVID-19.

- Emily Corwin

Gov. Scott announces $400 million economic recovery package

Gov. Phil Scott announced a $400 million economic recovery package Wednesday. The package aims to help businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor wants the Legislature to swiftly approve the plan, which uses federal relief funds to make direct grants and loans to a variety of businesses.

Scott noted the economic toll taken on businesses which have had to shut down during the crisis. 

"Many are still closed; others have reduced operations and are just barely holding on. And this package will help them keep afloat while we get through this phase," Scott said. "It includes grants and loans for those most impacted, funds to help stabilize rental housing and help renters, technical assistance for business owners trying to work their way through this crisis."

In the first phase, the governor plans to release $310 million in direct aid to businesses to help them stay afloat.

Secretary of Commerce Lindsay Kurrle gave details of the plan at Gov. Phil Scott's media briefing Wednesday.

"Right off the top, $150 million will be used to provide Restart Vermont Action grants to those hardest-hit sectors of food and accomodation services, retail and agriculture, to be used for fixed cost expenses like rent, mortgage payments, utilities, inventory or other essential operating expenses," Kurrle said.

Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbets said that $50 million will go to the dairy industry, with $40 million going to farmers and $10 million going to processors. 

Phase two will set up a $90 million investment program to improve and transform the state's economy. 

The package also includes up to three months of emergency rental supplementation for landlords.

The Legislature must approve the spending proposal. The governor said he wants lawmakers to move quickly so money can get to those who need it as soon as possible.

Listen to Vermont Edition at noon tomorrow for a live conversation about what the proposed relief package contains

Sam Gale Rosen

Masks are now required for customers and staff in Brattleboro stores

Customers and staff at stores in Brattleboro are now required to wear a mask. 

The Brattleboro Reformer reports that the selectboard unanumously adopted an emergency resolution at a meeting Tuesday.

The topic was not on the board's agenda, but town manager Peter Elwell said the board had the authority to vote on the emergency resolution, according to the paper. 

The order goes into effect immediately, and stores are being required to post the policy.

There are no enforcement measures, according to The Reformer, and children under the age of five are exempt. 

There was some pushback at the meeting because the board voted on an issue that was not on the agenda, but the board said it would discuss the issue again at its next meeting.

Gov. Scott last week declined to isse a statewide mask requirement, but said municipalities could issue the resolutions on their own. Burlington and South Burlington this week adopted mask resolutions.

Howard Weiss-Tisman

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Department of Corrections will now test inmates in prisons that haven't undergone universal testing

The Vermont Department of Corrections will now test inmates in prisons which have not yet undergone universal testing. 

Previously inmates were only tested after an inmate or staffer tested positive at their facility. 

Testing will take place this week at the Marble Valley prison in Rutland, and later on at the facilities in Springfield and Newport.

Recent rounds of testing in South Burlington and St. Johnsbury revealed no new cases. 48 inmates have tested positive at the prison in Franklin County, since an outbreak began there in early April. 

More from VPR: Prison, Nursing Home Testing Stays Limited, Depsite Expanded Testing Elsewhere In Vermont

Emily Corwin

 

Hannaford Supermarkets to hire 2,000 positions across five states, including Vermont

Vermont is experiencing record high unemployment, but not all businesses are suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hannaford Supermarkets announced it is hiring 2,000 positions in the five states it serves, including Vermont. The chain has already added 2,200 positions since March, in response to growing demand.

Scott LeClair, Hannaford's Director of Talent, said the positions will bolster traidtional operations and the increasingly popular curbside pickup location. 

"We're also trying to increase our Hannaford-To-Go operation, which is what customers really want and we're maxed out right now, so we want to increase slots to be better able to serve the communities," LeClair said.

Some positions will be short-term, for workers on furlough from the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors.

However, LeClair said most of the new hires are expected to be permanent.

Betty Smith
 

New York State's Democratic presidential primary will proceed

New York State's June 23 Democratic presidential primary is definitely back on, after a recent court ruling.

The state's Democratic Party leadership gave up its attempt to cancel the presidential primary on Tuesday. It did so after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals regected arguments that holding it during the coroavirus pandemic would endanger public safety.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang had challenged the cancellation of the primary after the candidates suspended their campaigns. Elections were already scheduled for June 23 for numberous other races, including for state and Congressional offices. 

- Associated Press

The Scott administration proposes an 8% Senate budget cut

The Scott Administration is proposing an 8% cut to a large part of the state budget next year.

Seven Days reports that in a budget proposal submitted to the House Appropriations Committee, the administration said that most agencies and departments should spend 8% less in the first quarter of the next fiscal year than they did this year. This is to offset an expected decline in tax revenue.

The administration made no policy recommendations, but proposed continuing all state programs — simply with less money. 

A spending plan needs to be passed before the next fiscal year starts on July 1. 

Sam Gale Rosen

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