News Roundup: Vermont Dept. Of Health Reports 90 New COVID-19 Cases Monday
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, Sept. 20.
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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta variant is now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and find the latest vaccination data online any time.
1. Vermont Dept. of Health reports 90 new COVID-19 cases
State health officials reported 90 new COVID-19 infections Monday, and backdated an additional 40 cases to previous days.
That's after the weekend tallied more than 450 cases, including an updated count of 252 new infections on Sunday.
Hospitalizations climbed to 46, including 15 people in intensive care. That's nearing pandemic highs of hospitalizations in the 50s and 60s last seen in January and February.
The vaccination rate of eligible Vermonters, last updated Saturday, is 87.2%.
— Matthew Smith
Report finds striking racial disparities in rates of COVID-19 among children in Vermont
A new report from the Vermont Department of Health finds African American Vermonters have contracted COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of white Vermonters.
However, the gap has started to narrow since last winter's surge.
Racial disparities in who gets COVID-19 have persisted in Vermont throughout the pandemic, like they have elsewhere in the country. Systemic racism creates conditions that make BIPOC — that's Black, Indigenous and people of color — more likely to be exposed to the virus.
Hispanic Vermonters have also tested positive at a higher rate, as have Asian Vermonters.
White Vermonters account for about 90% of COVID-19 cases overall.
But Black children are testing positive at more than twice the rate of white children, with Asian children not far behind.
However, since mid-August, case rates among BIPOC Vermonters of all ages have trended lower than among white Vermonters.
— Abagael Giles
Contact tracers are reaching fewer than one-third of COVID-positive Vermonters within the first 24 hours
Contact tracers are reaching fewer than one-third of Vermonters with COVID-19 within the first 24 hours of their infection, according to Health Department data.
The state has augmented contact tracing efforts to keep up with rising case counts.
Contact tracers interviewed 28% of positive cases within 24 hours.
Just over half — 51% — of those individuals provided their close contacts, and 9% of contacts became a positive case.
Last spring, the state contracted an out-of-state company to take on contact tracing work. According to state officials, that company did not increase its workforce as case counts increased in recent months, despite a contractual obligation to do so.
Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said this week that contact tracing staff will be increased, using state workers, national guard members and additional contract employees.
— Anna Van Dine
Vermonters 20-29 have contracted COVID-19 more than any other age group
Vermonters between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine have contracted the coronavirus more than any other age group, according to the latest health department data.
According to a recent report, most of the cases in the state have been with people 40 and younger.
And the highest percentage among all age groups was with people between 20 and 29.
Men have slightly higher rates of infection than women in Vermont, and 8% of Vermonters who tested positive have a disability.
— Howard Weiss-Tisman
Overall rates of breakthrough cases in Vermont remain low
Three-quarters of all breakthrough infections of COVID-19 in Vermont were reported in August, according to health department data.
But the overall rates of cases among fully vaccinated individuals are very low.
Since January, about 0.4% of the more than 441,000 Vermonters who are fully vaccinated have tested positive for COVID-19.
The state started reporting more breakthrough infections in late-July and August, after pandemic restrictions were lifted and the highly contagious delta variant was spreading.
State data shows vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness or death: 71% of recent hospitalizations, and 88% of deaths reported this year have been among unvaccinated people.
— Liam Elder-Connors
2. Lawmakers grill Scott Administration Friday over plans to wind-down motel housing program
Vermont lawmakers grilled members of the Scott administration Friday over their plan to wind down a motel housing program for low-income residents.
Administration officials say 540 households will lose motel housing at the end of this week.
Montpelier Representative Mary Hooper says people facing eviction from motels likely won’t be able to find safe places to live.
“I personally am deeply concerned about sticking to a plan that is likely to put a large number of people essentially back on the streets, because we know there is no housing available," Hooper said.
Administration officials say they’re giving $2,500 checks to everyone losing motel housing.
They say they’re also trying to establish temporary shelters for emergency housing during cold-weather months.
State scrambles to set up winter shelters
The effort comes as more than 500 households are set to lose temporary motel housing next week.
Sean Brown, Commissioner for the Department for Children and Families, says many of those people will have a difficult time securing safe housing after they’re evicted from motels.
“So we are working to see if we can locate and standup a temporary shelter system this winter, in the coming months, to provide capacity for a place for homeless folks to go," Brown said.
Brown says large-scale motel housing is no longer an option, because many lodging establishments want to reopen to tourists.
— Peter Hirschfeld
3. Lt. Gov calls for governor to consider reinstating state of emergency
Vermont's second highest ranking public official — Lieutenant Gov. Molly Gray — says the governor should consider reinstating a state of emergency to help control the spread of COVID-19.
She says the administration has failed to issue clear indoor masking policies.
"So that Vermonters know that if they're inside, they need to be wearing a mask, so there's no question for our businesses, for our superintendents, for our kids, for families, for Vermonters around the state," Gray said.
Jason Maulucci is Gov. Scott's press secretary. He says a mask mandate isn't needed because nearly 90% of Vermonters are vaccinated.
"Eighteen months into this, with such a high vaccination rate, we simply can't live under a perpetual state of emergency," Maulucci said.
Maulucci says there's also no need to impose a statewide school mask mandate because almost every school district has put such a policy in place.
He says the administration has repeatedly told Vermonters to avoid high risk situations like indoor social gatherings.
"Masking is obviously less prevalent in situations like that, so if people are concerned, you know, you might want to consider not attending such an event," he said.
"If it comes to a state of emergency for a limited purpose and a mandate to empower businesses and schools, and that's the direction we need to go, he has my full support in doing that."
— Bob Kinzel
4. Legislative panel approves nearly $30 million for childcare
On Friday, a legislative panel approved a proposal that will send nearly $30 million to childcare providers in Vermont.
The money comes from a federal coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress earlier this year.
Miranda Gray, with the Department for Children and Families, says some of the funding will help address severe staffing shortages at childcare providers.
"From direct conversations with providers in the spring and early summer, we learned programs were struggling not only to hire, but even have a single response to job postings." Gray said.
The proposal will also boost funding for providers that serve infants and toddlers, and programs that serve BIPOC families.
— Peter Hirschfeld
5. SNAP benefits set to increase by 25% starting in October
Changes are coming to food assistance programs in Vermont.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP is set to increase 25% beginning October 1st.
But on Sept. 30, a pandemic-related emergency SNAP benefit hike will expire.
Anti-hunger advocates told The Addison Independent despite the coming "historic" increase, the program still won’t reflect the true costs of buying food.
About 70,000 Vermonters receive nutrition benefits.
— Brittany Patterson
6. Scott Administration will allow state agencies to request 3% budget increase
The Scott administration is allowing state agencies to request a 3% funding increase in next year’s budgets.
During previous budgeting cycles, Gov. Phil Scott has instructed agencies to develop level-funded budget proposals.
But Commissioner of Finance Adam Greshin says the cost of providing government services has gone up.
“I think we have to face the fact that we have some cost pressures out there, and also that departments have been very lean for a number of years," Greshin said.
Agency heads will submit budget proposals to the Agency of Administration the end of this week.
Scott will present his final spending proposal to the Legislature in January.
— Peter Hirschfeld
Budget Commissioner expresses concern over shrinking workforce
Although state revenues continue to grow at a fairly strong pace, the Scott administration is expressing concerns about the overall health of the Vermont economy.
Money collected in the first two months of the fiscal year increased by roughly 6%, led by high spending on shopping, bars and restaurants, and on hotels.
Budget Commissioner Adam Greshin says federal stimulus money continues to boost the state's revenues, but he's concerned that Vermont's labor force has shrunk by nearly 8% since the beginning of the pandemic.
"And to the extent that our pool of potential recruits into the labor force is shrinking, that means that our potential economic output has to be stagnant or shrinking," Greshin said.
Greshin says the revenue report highlights the need for the state to maintain a sustainable spending plan in the coming years.
— Bob Kinzel
7. New study examines role of New England forests could play in slowing climate change — and lost oportunity
The loss of forests in New England and New York is releasing millions of metric tons of climate change-causing gases into the atmosphere each year. That's according to a study released this week by Clark University and the Nature Conservancy.
Not only is deforestation producing carbon emissions — the study finds the loss of those forests means New England is losing out on pulling 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 out of the air each year.
This comes as Vermont is working on a plan this fall for how it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.
Through the early 2000s, the state lost on average 623 acres of forest each year. According to the study, that adds about 200,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere annually, if you count emissions and lost opportunities to trap carbon.
That like adding nearly 44,000 cars to the road.
The authors argue that slowing deforestation should be a priority for addressing climate change.
— Abagael Giles
8. Drought conditions have improved over the past year, but Northern Vermont remains abnormally dry
Drought conditions in Vermont have improved over the past year. But the region of the state north of I-89 is still impacted by dry conditions.
Currently, 46% of the state is abnormally dry or in moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Moderate drought is affecting large parts of Franklin and Orleans Counties, and northern Lamoille County.
A year ago, almost 100% of the state was at least abnormally dry.
— Anna Van Dine
9. State to weigh changes to Vermont's Endangered and Threatened Species List
State wildlife officials documented 64 young bald eagles in Vermont last year, a number that could prompt a policy change toward the iconic avian.
The Fish and Wildlife Department says that the state should removebald eagles from the state’s endangered and threatened species list — that’s because they have seen “significant and steady’ population growth since 2006.
But the news is less optimistic for other species.
The department is recommending to add the American Bumble Bee to the endangered list, and the eastern meadowlark to the threatened list.
A public hearing on these proposed changes is scheduled for Oct. 5 in Montpelier.
— Liam Elder-Connors
Abagael Giles compiled and edited this post.