'No Shame In Seeking Help': Scott Urges Vermonters To Pursue Mental Health, Addiction Treatment
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the upcoming legislative session, status of Vermont's schools and more for Friday, Dec. 4.
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The latest coronavirus data:
1. Vermont Dept. of Health reports 73 new COVID cases
The Vermont Department of Health reported 73 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of cases detected in the state so far to 4,763.
Of the new cases announced Friday, 22 are in Chittenden County. The county has seen 349 new cases in the last 14 days. Windham County saw ten new cases.
State officials also reported that two more Vermonters have died, bringing the death toll to 77.
The seven-day average percent positivity rate is 2.8% and 29 people are hospitalized with the disease, including three in the ICU.
Gov. Phil Scott used his twice-weekly media briefing on Friday to urge Vermonters to adhere to public health protocols.
On Thursday, Vermont recorded its highest daily case count since the beginning of the pandemic.
"We've got to pay attention to what's happening right before our eyes," he said Friday. "So I'm once again urging Vermonters to follow our health guidance."
- Abagael Giles and Peter Hischfeld
Burlington city officials detect spike in traces of COVID-19 in wastewater
The City of Burlington says COVID-19 monitoring of its wastewater has seen traces of the coronavirus explode in recent days.
WCAX reports the city's been monitoring its water for traces of the virus for months, since the virus can show up in wastewater up to a week earlier than testing results.
The city said its monitoring shows low levels in mid-November, before a sharp jump after Thanksgiving.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said the wastewater data gives the city a chance to "act early" to address a potential increase in COVID-sick Vermonters.
- Matthew Smith
Outbreak at Burlington long-term care facility grows to 71 cases
A coronavirus outbreak at a long-term care facility in Burlington has now infected 71 residents and staff members.
A separate outbreak at a residential facility in Rutland has resulted in another 57 cases of COVID-19.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said the most effective way to avoid similar outbreaks in the future is to reduce the prevalence of COVID-19 in the general population.
"Which of course is the reason for our continued emphasis on restricting travel, on making sure that if there was travel, that a quarantine period follows that, and of course, focusing on restricting multi-household gatherings," Levine said.
Levine said his department is now investigating outbreaks at eight nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Vermont reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 on Friday. Levine said both deaths occurred in a long-term care facility.
Additionally, the Scott Administration is instituting new coronavirus testing protocols for nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said that starting Monday, all staff at assisted living and residential care facilities will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week.
"We will also make available antigen tests, so that the facility can use them upon identification of symptomatic residents or staff," Smith said.
Smith said the state will also provoide skilled nursing facilities with enough antigen testing kids to test all staff members daily.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Department of Health ramps up contact tracing
The Vermont Department of Health is ramping up staffing at its contact tracing division.
Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said the recent surge in COVID-19 cases has increased the workload for contact tracers.
"And as we see case counts continue to increase across the country and the state, we're bringing in more staff to assist in this effort," Smith said.
He said that by Monday, the department will have the equivalent of 100 full-time positions working in the contact tracing program.
Smith said the state is also instituting a text notification system, to reach Vermonters who may have come into close contact with someone with COVID-19.
- Peter Hirschfeld
2. Vermont prepares to distribute COVID-19 vaccines when available
Vermont's vaccine advisory committee will meet Friday to finalize distribution plans for the COVID-19 vaccine, including who gets it first.
The draft plan puts health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities at the top of the list, which is in-line with guidance approved by a CDC advisory group this week.
Deputy Health Commissioner Kelly Dougherty said she doesn't expect the plans to change.
"We've been working over the last several weeks to enroll our hospitals into our vaccine programs, specifically for COVID and fortunately, all our hospitals have enrolled," Douhgerty said. "So they'll be ready to receive vaccines."
The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing two vaccines for possible use. The Vermont Department of Health says it could have doses of a vaccine in its warehouse by Dec. 15.
Where will Vermonters get vaccines?
While initial doses will be limited, primarily going to health care workers, the state does expect to ramp up distribution once the supply increases.
The health department says hospitals, primary care doctors and pop-up clinics are all part of the plan to get shots to hundreds of thousands of Vermonters.
Pharmacies will also play a role. Lauren Bode, with the Vermont Pharmacists Association, said they can fill gaps throughout the state, especially places that might not be near a large healthcare facility.
"Pharmacists are accessible, we're trusted, we're convenient and that's really important when you're talking about something like immunization, because we need lots of people to get immunized very quickly," Bode said.
- Liam Elder-Connors
3. Public officials urge Vermonters to seek mental health, substance use treatment
- COVID Support VT: 866-652-4636
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- Vermont Suicide Prevention Center: Text VT to 741741
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
Gov. Phil Scott said Friday the coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on Vermonters' mental health. And he is urging people in crisis to reach out to the state for counseling.
"If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health or substance misuse, or anything else, you should reach out. There is no shame in seeking help, no matter how serious or insignificant you think the issue might be," Scott said.
He said people should contact their local community health provider, or primary care doctor for help.
People who don't have access to health care services can call 2-1-1 for assistance.
COVID Support Vermont
Mental health officials say the coronavirus pandemic doesn't appear to have led to an increase in suicides in Vermont.
But Commissioner of Mental Health Sarah Squirrell said many residents are in crisis as a result of social isolation, financial stress and other factors related to COVID-19.
"There are many valid reasons to be worried, overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted," Squirrell said Friday. "And if these feelings are beginning to impact you, seeking help can be very supportive."
Squirrell said the state has launched a program called COVID Support Vermont, to help people cope with the pandemic.
She said people can access those support services by calling 2-1-1.
Overdose deaths appear to be on the rise
Mental health officials are urging people struggling with substance use to access treatment services from Vermont Department of Health.
Overdose deaths in Vermont are on pace to hit a record high in 2020.
Commissioner of Mental Health Sarah Squirrell said isolation due to the pandemic may be responsible for the increase.
Squirrell said people who use opioids alone are at higher risk of dying from an overdose.
"And please avoid using alone if possible," she said Friday. "If you are alone, connect to a trusted person by phone, or text, or call Never Use Alone at 1-800-484-3731."
She said the department has created a program called Vermont Help Link, which provides free and confidential referrals to substance use treatment services.
People can access the program online, or by calling 802-565-L-I-N-K
Squirrell said that the pandemic has exacerbated substance abuse problems for many Vermonters.
"As people experience stress, depression and anxiety, they may use alcohol and drugs more," she said.
According to data from the Department of Health, 109 people died of opiod overdoses between January and September.
In 2019, 111 people died from opioid overdoses in Vermont.
- Peter Hirschfeld
3. Agency of Education aims to recruit subs, reduce truancy
Secretary of Education Dan French says school districts in Vermont are beginning to see an uptick in truancies.
And he said the trend points to the need for increased support services for students.
"The emergent national picture is indicating that students are feeling isolated and at a greater mental health risk on top of the already rising anxiety and mental health issues that existed prior to the COVID emergency," French said.
He said his agency has begun to deploy state resources to help schools address their students' mental health needs.
French said the state will ramp up support services for teachers and other school staff as well.
State works to recruit substitute teachers
As school districts in Vermont continue to struggle with staffing issues, the Agency of Education has launched a taskforce to recruit substitute teachers.
Secretary of Education Dan French said during a media briefing Friday that the task force met for the first time Thursday.
"And we had a preliminary conversation about the possible causes of the substitute shortage and to start identifying possible solutions, with a focus on what the state could do to help more," French said.
He said staffing shortages have forced some districts in the state to revert to remote learning.
He asked members of the general public Friday to help schools address the problem by signing up to serve as a substitute teacher.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. Vt. lawmakers get tough budget preview
Vermont lawmakers have gotten a preview of the budget challenges they'll face when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Legislative economist Tom Kavet said lawmakers won't have a firm graps on the state's fiscal landscape until Congress decides on its next COVID relief package.
"Control of the Senate is still up in the air, with the two pending Georgia Senate races, and it's really difficult to forecast and guess exactly what may be coming," Kavet said.
Kavet told lawmakers that the decline in state revenues hasn't been as steep as analysts predicted earlier this summer.
But Vermont is still expected to see state revenues drop $175 million from pre-pandemic levels.
- Peter Hirschfeld
5. Solar developers hope findings of new report will bolster incentives
Solar developers in Vermont and New England hope a new report touting the economic benefits of solar energy will boost incentives for their renewable power sector.
The report, releast Thursday, says solar-generated power has saved New England ratepayers about $1.1 billion over five years.
James Moore, a co-founder of the SunCommon solar company in Waterbury, said the report helps make the case for more solar in Vermont.
"And I hope that our governor and legislative leaders take note of this report's findings and recognize that solar energy is a place that we can get a win-win for our local economy, rebuilding, saving Vermonters money on their electric bills, and addressing our climate crisis in burning fewer fossil fuels," Moore said.
But the report runs counter to a recent order from Vermont regulators, that said higher prices paid to solar developers actually can cause rates to rise overall for customers.
Moore said, "When the utilities do the math, they're not adding all of the benefits together, they're just cherry-picking some of the benefits of solar and saying 'Oh, look. It's not worth as much.' But when you consider all of the benefits that solar delivers to consumers and ratepayers and our environment, it's clear utilities are getting more than they pay for."
Moore added that solar replaces dirtier power sources on the grid, and thus has overall public health and environmental benefits as well.
- John Dillon
6. U.S. House approves legislation that decriminalizes cannabis sales
The U.S. House has approved legislation that decriminalizes marijuana sales and expunges non-violent cannabis related criminal records.
Under the bill, the federal government would recognize efforts in states like Vermont that have legalized the sale of marijuana. And the proposal would allow retail businesses to access the federal banking system.
Rep. Peter Welch supported the bill. He acknowledges that there's little time for the Senate to consider the bill this year, but he's optimistic about next year.
"It's a huge first step," he said. "I mean, this has been bubbling up, of course, with the activism in states. It's something that if we don't get it through the Senate this year, we could in the first year of the Biden Administration."
Welch said the bill is important to criminal justice reform efforts because studies indicate that a disproportionate number of Black people have been convicted of marijuana related crimes.
- Bob Kinzel
7. Burlington Progressives select Tracy as mayoral nominee
Burlington Progressives have nominated City Council President Max Tracy to face off against incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger on Town Meeting Day in March.
Tracy won about 55% of the vote during the Progressive caucus this week, beating City Councilor Brian Pine.
Tracy was elected to the city council in 2012, the same year Weinberger, a Democrat, became mayor.
Tracy said the city needs to take dramatic steps to tackle issues like systemic racism and economic inequity.
"These are the things we know were there before the pandemic, have been made more obvious by the pandemic, and will be there afterwards," he said. "And we need new leadership that thinks boldly, not incrementally."
In a tweet, Weinberger said he looked forward "to a substantive and spirited debate."
There are at least two independent candidates running for mayor as well: City Councilor Ali Dieng and South End resident Patrick White. Progressives hold a majority on the Burlington City Council.
- Liam Elder-Connors
8. Stamford holds Christmas tree lighting in defiance of executive order
The town of Stamford will hold a public Christmas tree lighting Friday, in defiance of Gov. Scott's order not to gather during the coronavirus pandemic.
At a selectboard meeting Thursday, Stamford resident Heidi Peterson said the town's decision to defy Vermont's emergency health guidance was a mistake.
"I'm deeply concerned about overriding the health regulations that are there to protect us all, and that will protect us in the community," she said. "And I do not want to see our selectboard take any actions in opposition to that."
Members of the selectboard have accused Gov. Scott of overstepping his authority by asking people not to gather.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
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