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'No Surge On A Surge': Levine Says Vt. Appears To Have Dodged Thanksgiving Rise

Movie Theater marquee reads Happy Holidays Stay Safe See You in 2021
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
The Welden Theater, which has been showing movies in St. Albans since the mid-1940s, is currently closed due to COVID-19. Their website asks customers to stay home if they can, noting, "A little social distance goes a long way."

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, policing reform in Burlington, documenting racial disparity in Vermont's criminal justice system and more for Friday, Dec. 11.Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 15 minutes with The Frequency every weekday morning. How about an email newsletter? Add our daily email briefing to your morning routine.

The latest coronavirus data:

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1. Vermont Dept. of Health reports 113 new COVID-19 cases; four deaths

The health department reported 113 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, along with four new deaths.

93 people have now died from the disease in Vermont. More than one-third of the state's fatalities have occurred in the past month.

Of the new cases, 52 were in Chittenden County. Orleans and Franklin counties each recorded 11 new cases.

There are 26 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Vermont, including five in intensive care.

- Matthew Smith

Vermont appears to have avoided Thanksgiving surge

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Friday Vermont appears to have avoided a post-Thanksgiving surge in coronavirus cases.

Levine said daily case counts remain far higher than he's comfortable with. But he said there hasn't been a dramatic spike in cases since the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We hope this means Vermonters either avoided Thanksgiving gatherings or kept them very small, and we truly appreciate that," Levine said. "None of our recent contact tracing efforts have revealed clusters of cases coming from the holiday."

Levine said other regions of the country have seen COVID cases jump in the weeks following Thanksgiving. He said Vermont's experience shows the effectiveness of the state's prohibition on gatherings between members of different households.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Residents, staff at long-term care facilities could see vaccine next week

Gov. Phil Scott said Friday residents and staff of long-term care facilities in Vermont could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines as soon as next week.

Scott said nearly 6,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be shipped to Vermont as soon as federal regulators approve the product.

"To be sure, this has and will be complicated," he said. "But we're ready. And we expect, if hte FDA and CDC sign off, the first doses will arrive sometime next week."

Scott said it'll be months before Vermont has enough doses to begin inocculating lower-risk residents.

He said the Agency of Human Resources is working with health care providers to distribute and administer the vaccine, when it becomes more widely available.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont ramps up surveillance testing, contact tracing

Vermont is again ramping up surveillance testing for COVID-19.

Last month, the state instituted monthly coronavirus testing of all staff at public schools in Vermont.

During a media briefing Friday, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said the state will begin widespread testing of health care workers as well.

"We are seeing too many days of over 100 COVID-19 cases, so we must do everything that we possibly can to get a handle on the virus and put more safety measures into place," Smith said.

Smith said at least 25% of health care providers who work directly with patients will be tested monthly.

Public health officials say surveillance testing allows the state to gauge the prevalence of the virus in the general population.

Additionally, the company that handles the call center for Vermont's health insurance programs will now perform contact tracing activities as well.

Smith said Friday a company called Maximus will be setting up a new contact tracing center in Vermont.

He said the contract will bring on 75 new contact tracers over the next few weeks.

"The expanded team will be working 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven-days a week, including holidays, until we decide they are no longer necessary," Smith said.

Vermont currently has 105 full-time employees working to notify individuals if they've come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

Smith said rising coronavirus case counts in Vermont have required the state to increase its contact tracing capacity.

- Peter Hirschfeld

State signs $1.4 million contract to secure reserve of health care workers

The state of Vermont has enlisted a health care company in Williston to address workforce shortages in long-term care facilities in the state.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said his agency signed a $1.4 million contract with TLC Services last week.

"TLC will provide for emergency staffing deployment of up to 40 staff total," Smith said Friday. "Those are RNs, LPNs, LNAs and unlicensed caregivers and support staff."

Smith said coronavirus outbreaks at eight long-term care homes in Vermont have led to staffing shortages at the facilities.

He said the state is also seeking volunteers with health care experience to provide assistance at the affected facilities.

Smith said his agency is looking for volunteers to help those facilities care for patients.

"It's a call to action for Vermonters who have capacity to step up and help meet the critical needs of COVID-19 responses in long-term care facilities," he said. Clinicians with capability to step in are especially needed."

Smith said people interested in signing up should go to vermont.gov/covid-staffing.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermonters can now get text alerts about COVID updates

The state of Vermont is introducing a new way to keep residents informed of breaking developments related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Erica Bornemann, with Vermont Emergency Management, said the Vermont Alert System has long been used to warn residents about storms, floods and other imminent dangers.

"The system will now be used to keep Vermonters informed about the pandemic, and is an important resource for people to get the most up-to-date and accurate information about COVID-19," Bornemann said.

Bornemann said alerts will include information about COVID-related emergency orders and the locations of vaccine clinics.

She said people will have to sign up in order to receive notifications from the Vermont Alert System.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. With vaccine on the horizon, Vt. is ramping up defenses at long-term care facilities

Eight elder care homes in Vermont have had coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks, and the majority of COVID-19 deaths in the last month have taken place at those facilities.

The state is responding with new strategies to deal with the outbreaks, including plans to assemble a new group of trained nurses, who can be deployed to affected facilities.

Monica Hutt, the commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, said the pool of workers could be used to relieve staff shortages at the outset of an outbreak.

"As the virus enters the facility, staff are getting sick and have to get pulled off their shifts," she said. "So there's always this period of time at the very beginning, where before they can stabilize their own staffing resources, they typically need some assistance."

Staff and residents of long term care homes are among the first people who could receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont in the coming weeks.

Read or listen to the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

3. Vermont's attorney general calls for Supreme Court to reject lawsuit seeking to overturn 2020 election

Vermont's top law officer has joined a group of states urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election in four key states.

Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced Thursday that Vermont would join 22 other attorneys general in opposing a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Texas and 17 Republican attorneys generals argue the four states acted illegally to change their election laws, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit, filed Monday, asks the Supreme Court to invalidate election results in those states.

In a news release, Donovan called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said he was "proud to oppose it."

- Brittany Patterson

4. Burlington Interim Police Chief warns of staffing shortfalls

Burlington’s top police official says the city needs to start planning how to address gaps in service that could appear as the police force shrinks.

Eight police officers in Vermont’s largest city have left the force since June and department officials expect further decreases in the coming year.

Burlington’s Interim Police Chief Jon Murad says five of the officers cited the city council’s decision to cut the size of the force as a factor in their departure.

The council voted in June to reduce the size of the police force to 74, through attrition. The department currently has 81 sworn officers.

Murad says the resolution included a plans to develop a “new public safety apparatus” – but those assessments haven’t started.

"And because those immeasurably helpful processes have not yet begun, we need to assess and address the fact that officers are leaving, and that calls for service are still coming in," Murad said.

Murad said while he would prefer to hire more officers, he’s open to alternative proposals, including hiring more community service officers.

“It’s an existing position. It performs a variety of field work in support of basic police operations: animal control, subpoena service, material transport, traffic control. And there are other things we could expand that role to address as well,” Murad said.

Murad said the department could also add social workers to focus on mental health and substance abuse issues.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. New report indicates Vermont needs to better scrutinize racial disparities in its criminal justice system

Vermont needs to do a better job collecting data on racial disparities in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, according to a legislative report that came out recently.

Lawmakers set up an advisory panel this year to make recommendations on how to improve Vermont’s data collection systems to better identify how people are being charged and sentenced by county, race and gender.

The report identifies points when conscious, or unconscious racial bias can make a big difference in how people are treated, including whether they are charged or referred to treament programs.

The panel is asking for a new office to collect and analyze the information, as well as funding for law enforcement and judicial systems to report the data.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

6. In Roxbury, Vermont's first fish hatchery is now restored and raising trout

Vermont’s oldest fish hatchery is now back in operation, the Department of Fish and Wildlife reports. The central Vermont facility’s reopening comes nearly a decade after it was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.

Originally built in 1891, the Roxbury Fish Culture Station once had a roughly $2.4 million annual impact on Vermont’s economy. That’s according to a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The hatchery reopened this fall after a nine-year closure, and is expected to raise about 60,000 brook and rainbow trout annually for stocking Vermont waters.

If all goes as planned, the agency says the first batch of yearling trout will be stocked in Vermont’s lakes, ponds and streams by 2022.

- Abagael Giles

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