State Officials Investigating Spoiled COVID Tests, Offering Re-testing
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, a marijuana decriminalization bill in U.S. Congress and more for Tuesday, Dec. 1.
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The latest coronavirus data:
1. Health officials report three more people have died after contracting COVID-19
Vermont’s Health Department reported 63 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. Twenty-two were in Chittenden County, and 15 were in Franklin County. State officials say the recent surge in cases in Washington County is starting to slow.
State health officials also announced that three more Vermonters have died, bringing the statewide death toll to 72.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine says his staff is following 39 outbreaks of coronavirus across the state, along with 185 “situations,” including one related to a Thanksgiving dinner party, celebrated early.
- Abagael Giles
Scott administration investigating unprocessed COVID tests
The Scott administration is trying to find out why 246 Vermont COVID test samples sent to a lab in Massachusetts sat in a warehouse outside Boston for about 50 hours.
The delay meant the samples were spoiled and could not be processed.
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith apologized for the incident Tuesday. He also apologized for a subsequent mass email that revealed the electronic addresses of those who got tested.
“The Agency of Human Services and its health department must make sure this never happens again,” Smith said. “As secretary of this agency, I take responsibility, and my office needs to act.”
Gov. Phil Scott said those who learned their tests were among those spoiled should get re-tested as soon as possible, and he added that he'll deliver the samples personally if that's what it takes.
“We want to make sure that you do get tested,” Scott said. “If you can get to a testing site today, identify who you are, and I make a commitment – we haven't said this yet – but if you have a test today, we'll let you know the results within 24 hours, just make sure that you identify you're one of the ones who was on that list, and we'll make sure it happens, that you get a call. Even if I have to drive all the samples myself today from Barre to the health lab in Colchester, we'll get it done within the next 24 hours.”
Scott says a subsequent mass email that revealed the addresses of those who were tested "added insult to injury."
Smith says the Agency of Human Services’ general counsel will investigate what happened to the shipment, and why the mass email went out in apparent violations of federal health care privacy rules. He says he does not yet know the individuals responsible for the problems.
- John Dillon
Vermont second-least mobile state in U.S.
State officials say they're cautiously optimistic about progress in combating the coronavirus.
Finance Commissioner Michael Pieciak handles the state's modeling of the pandemic. He says that Vermonters are traveling less and less as they follow restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that data gathered from cell phone use shows the relative mobility among residents in various states. Pieciak says Vermonters are now the second-least mobile state in the country as people work from home and decline to travel out of state.
“These sacrifices have resulted in not only a slowing of cases here in Vermont, but in fact decreasing from a seven-day high of 105 to 70 cases today, a nearly or an over 30% decrease,” he said.
Pieciak says there does seem to be a correlation between a state's mobility and its rate of infections. He points out that North Dakota – whose population is one of the most mobile in the country – has an infection rate 16 times that of Vermont.
Gov.: State ready for first vaccine shipment
Gov. Phil Scott says that vaccines should be approved soon that offer great hope in stopping the virus.
“Our teams are ready for the first shipment of vaccine whenever those are distributed by the federal government,” he said. “I share all of this because even when we face some of the toughest challenges since March, there is reason to be optimistic, and there is reason to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Officials say it's possible that Vermont health care workers could get vaccines around the third week of December.
In the meantime, a legislative panel has approved a rule that will prohibit health insurers in Vermont from charging copays or deductibles for costs associated with the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sebastian Arduengo, with the Department of Financial Regulation, says the Scott administration has been contemplating the issue since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we drafted the rule back way back in April, the vaccines were more of a theoretical question, so I am very happy and relieved that that’s now the light at the end of the tunnel here,” Arduengo said.
The rule was adopted Monday by the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. The federal Affordable Care Act already prohibits cost-sharing for vaccines, but administration officials say they wanted redundancies built into state law.
- John Dillon and Peter Hirschfeld
Rutland city schools go remote
Students at Rutland City Public Schools are learning remotely all week after a decision Friday to take the whole district remote.
Those safety and staffing concerns are about an anticipated post-Thanksgiving spike in the spread of the coronavirus.
K-8 students have been learning in person five days a week since the start of the school year. High School and Stafford Technical Center students alternate in-person and remote learning.
- Matthew Smith
2. U.S. House takes up decriminalizing marijuana
The U.S. House this week is scheduled to consider legislation that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana. It marks the first time in more than 50 years that this issue has been debated on the House floor.
Congressman Peter Welch says he supports the bill because it allows individual states to make their own decisions about the possession and sale of marijuana.
“The bottom line here is, we've declassified marijuana as a controlled substance, and it means that states get the right to make their own decision,” Welch said. “And number two, it means that banks are allowed to finance legal activities as authorized by each state."
Welch says the bill also expunges the criminal records of people who have been convicted of possessing or selling small amounts of marijuana. He added he expects the bill will pass with bi-partisan support.
- Bob Kinzel
3. State to release Vermont Outdoors app
Vermont Fish and Wildlife has released a new mobile app to help people discover new outdoor recreation possibilities this winter.
As more people get outside during the pandemic, Vermont’s fishing accesses and wildlife management areas are seeing traffic tick up. The state has also seen an increase in hunting and fishing license sales.
To mitigate crowding at popular destinations, Vermont Fish and Wildlife is launching a new mobile app, where hunters, anglers and birders can look up information about the roughly 300 natural areas the department manages. Users will also see the latest COVID safety guidance.
The Vermont Outdoors app was one of several outdoor recreation projects funded by the CARES Act.
State officials hope the program, available in Apple’s App store and Google Play, will help people find less traveled places to get outside.
- Abagael Giles
Deer rifle season ends
Vermont’s 16-day rifle deer hunting season has ended, but the archery deer hunting season continues and a second muzzleloader season starts this week.
The archery season runs through mid-December. The muzzleloader season starts Saturday and runs through Dec. 13.
Officials remind hunters, outdoor recreators and other forest users to wear bright colors like blaze orange and try to be visible from all directions.
- Associated Press
4. Vermont National Guard to start two weeks of night flights
The Vermont Air National Guard starts two weeks of night flights on Tuesday.
The Guard's F-35 jets will take off from Burlington International Airport starting at 4:30 p.m. with landings as late as 8 p.m.
The nighttime take-offs and landings run today through Saturday, and again next week, Tuesday through Friday. Regular midday flights are also flying during daylight hours.
Guard officials say training in the dark winter hours is critical for pilots as well as maintenance teams and required training to meet U.S. Air Force proficiencies.
- Matthew Smith
5. Police chase, arrest two shooting suspects in Orleans County
Two people are in custody after a shooting Monday in downtown Newport led law enforcement on a car chase through the Northeast Kingdom and sent a local school into lockdown.
WCAX reports Newport police responded to a downtown fast food restaurant around 11:30 yesterday morning, and found a man who had been shot in the leg.
Two vehicles fled the scene. Border Patrol, Vermont State Police and the Orleans County Sheriff's Department tracked the vehicles down on I-91 near Barton, and followed the cars to Orleans, where the suspects ditched the cars and fled on foot.
Two people were taken into custody. The victim was taken to UVM Medical Center and is in stable condition.
The incident sent about 350 students at North Country Union High School into partial lockdown.
- Matthew Smith
6. State to consider removing bald eagle from endangered species list
The Agency of Natural Resources this week will consider a proposal to remove the bald eagle from the state’s endangered species list.
Doug Morin is with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says the move follows six straight years of successful nesting within the state.
“This is a great cause of celebration,” Morin said. “They’ve grown every year, they’ve been passing all the thresholds that we want to see. So eagles are really on a great trajectory.”
A committee will consider the proposal Friday, and then pass a recommendation on to the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, who will make the final decision about removing the birds from the endangered species list.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
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