News Roundup: Vermont Reports 121 New COVID-19 Cases Wednesday
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the proposed terms of a key permit for the state's only remaining operational landfill and more for Wednesday, Sept. 22.
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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 121 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday
State health officials reported 121 new COVID-19 infections in Vermont Wednesday, along with 47 backdated cases.
Vermont has seen now 100 or more cases each day in September, except one.
Currently, 48 Vermonters are hospitalized with the virus. That includes 19 people requiring intensive care.
The vaccination rate of eligible Vermonters with at least one shot is 87.4%.
— Matthew Smith
Vermont reaches highest rate of COVID hospitalizations in more than six months
The number of Vermonters hospitalized due to COVID-19 has hit its highest number in more than six months.
Gov. Phil Scott says unvaccinated people account for the large majority of those patients.
“These upticks are being driven more and more by the unvaccinated, which account for about 80% of hospitalizations, and 83% of those in the ICU," Scott said.
Speaking during his weekly press briefing on Tuesday, Scott said he hopes those statistics will compel more Vermonters to get vaccinated.
— Peter Hirschfeld
Recent increase in cases linked to Labor Day gatherings
New research shows Vermont's recent increase in COVID-19 cases is linked to social gatherings that took place over Labor Day weekend.
Michael Pieciak is the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, which crunches Vermont's COVID data.
He says the state's seven-day average of cases rose 27% after the Labor Day weekend — a time when many people gathered without wearing masks.
"Looking at the 10- to 14-day period and incubation cycle, after Labor Day, you do see that's generally landing on where the cases started to rise last week," Pieciak said. "So it gives us some indication, at least from a timing perspective, that some of this might be tied back to Labor Day."
Pieciak says there are indications that the state's seven-day average case rate is beginning to show signs of slowing down.
— Bob Kinzel
Gov. Scott says he will not declare a state of emergency
Gov. Phil Scott says it’d be an abuse of executive power to declare a state of emergency.
And he says he has no plans to institute a statewide mask mandate or other public health orders.
"For broad mandates, I’d need to declare a state of emergency, and the data still doesn’t support that step," he said.
Scott said at a press briefing on Tuesday that COVID-19 case counts aren’t a good measure of how Vermont is weathering the pandemic.
He said hospital capacity is the primary factor his administration monitors.
Andwhile 48 Vermonters are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, Scott says hospitals still have plenty of beds available for sick patients.
— Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Dept. of Corrections says one staff member at Newport prison has COVID-19
The Vermont Department of Corrections says one staffer at its Newport prison has tested positive for COVID-19.
The department says the single case at Northern State Correctional Facility was found in the fourth round of facility-wide outbreak testing conducted last Thursday.
That round of testing was the result of an outbreak in August that's infected 33 people being held at the facility, and eight staffers.
Corrections officials say contact tracing shows no risk to other staff or people incarcerated at the Newport prison, and it's now out of lockdown and resuming standard, though modified operations.
Another round of testing will be performed by the end of the week.
— Matthew Smith
Rutland requires masks for city employees at work
Starting Monday, Rutland city employees will need to mask up at work.
Rutland Mayor David Allaire says a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases and close contacts among city employees pushed him to call for the mandate.
"With advice from my health officer, our emergency management director, and having discussions with department heads, and city employees, including the unions, we were all in agreement that this is the best way to go, at this time, for the health of our employees," he said.
Allaire says about 170 municipal employees will be impacted.
A proposal to ban mask mandates in Rutland was defeated by the Board of Aldermen Monday night.
— Nina Keck
Maine tops 1,000 COVID-19 deaths
Maine topped 1,000 COVID-19 deaths, as the delta variant continues to fill the state’s hospital beds.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that an additional 18 deaths recorded in the state since Saturday pushed the total coronavirus deaths to 1,002 since the pandemic began nearly 19 months ago.
Maine currently has more than 200 people hospitalized, including more than 70 people in critical care, the highest total since the pandemic began.
About three-quarters of Maine’s eligible population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
— The Associated Press
2. Vermont schools reported more COVID-19 cases last week than at any other point in the pandemic
Vermont schools reported more cases of COVID-19 last week than at any other point during the pandemic.
The 174 cases in K-12 schools last week is more than 50% higher than the previous weekly record.
Education Secretary Dan French says high case counts among the general population are likely driving the rise in schools.
“I think that cases in school parallel the cases in communities," he said. "It’s still been our experience that more often than not, the virus is brought to school, so if there’s elevated case counts in the community, that ends up in school.”
French says his agency is ramping up COVID-19 testing resources for schools.
And he says students will soon have access to take home PCR test kits.
Students to get take-home PCR tests
Students in five Vermont school districts will soon have access to take home COVID-19 test kits.
And Education Secretary Dan French says his agency will roll out a take home test program in all districts in the near future.
“The take-home testing kits are used when a student is a close contact and is in quarantine, or when a student is symptomatic, staying home, and needs a test,” he said.
French says the kits will enable some schools to dial back on contact tracing efforts, which have overwhelmed staff in some districts.
He says students will take the test home, and either return the test sample to school, or drop it off at a UPS site, for processing by an out-of-state lab.
Sec. French recommends schools stop contact tracing once 80% of student body is fully vaccinated
French is recommending that school districts stop contract tracing altogether in schools where at least 80% of the student body has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
French says those schools can use testing instead of contact tracing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“In schools with a vaccination rate greater than 80%, a letter will be sent to students and parents in the affected classroom or program with a recommendation to get tested within three to five days ofthe potential exposure," he said.
French says many districts don’t have the resources to conduct contact tracing efforts.
He says the new guidance will allow districts to focus their contact tracing efforts on elementary school, where fewer students have been vaccinated against the virus.
— Peter Hirschfeld
School staff in many Vermont schools may soon be required to get vaccinated
It's likely that all school staff in Vermont will be required to be vaccinated in the coming months.
Education Sec. Dan French says a plan by the Biden administration to require vaccinations for all workers in private companies that employ at least 100 people will be extended to cover public school districts in Vermont.
French says the new federal policy would affect about one-third of Vermont's school districts and he thinks it would be good idea to impose the requirement on all schools regardless of their size.
"Since our plan will need to be at least as stringent as the federal one, we are considering the state requirement to include all school districts, not just those that have more than 100 employees."
At this time, there are no plans to add the COVID-19 shot to the list of vaccines that are required for students to attend public school.
— Bob Kinzel
3. Vermont prepares to offer booster shots to those over 65, or with compromised immune systems
The state is preparing to offer COVID-19 booster shots to a limited number Vermonters.
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says the first round of boosters will be available to people over 65, or those who have a compromised immune system.
In addition, only those who initially received a Pfizer vaccine will be eligible.
Smith says Vermonters will have to make an appointment to receive the booster shot.
"We anticipate that registration will start the day following approval and appointments will start shortly thereafter," Smith said. "Remember, this only applies to those individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine and who qualify."
Final federal approval for the Pfizer booster shot could come as early as this Wednesday afternoon.
— Bob Kinzel
4. Scott Administration extends emergency motel housing program for 30 days
More than 500 households that were set to lose long-term motel housing on Thursday have gotten an unexpected reprieve.
Gov. Phil Scott announced at a press briefing on Tuesday that he’ll grant a 30-day extension for the general assistance emergency housing program.
Scott says he made the decision after lawmakers and advocates voiced concern about the expiration of the program.
"We thought we were all on the same page," he said. "We all had the same goal, but that seems to be fracturing as we get closer to the date, so I thought it was a good idea to just pause this for 30 days.”
Scott says motel housing is not a viable long-term solution for people experiencing homelessness.
And he says he'll work with lawmakers and advocates on a transition plan over the next month.
— Peter Hirschfeld
5. New draft pre-treatment permit for Coventry landfill requires Casella remove PFAS from leachate
A draft permit released this week by state regulators would solidify Montpelier’s wastewater facility as the place in Vermont where leachate from the Casella-owned Coventry Landfill will be treated.
For years, leachate from the Coventry landfill was treated and released into Lake Memphremagog.
In 2019, concerns about the lake’s health prompted regulators to place a moratorium on treating waste in Newport. Instead, it was trucked to Montpelier.
Now, regulators say that should continue indefinitely.
The draft permit also calls for Casella to develop and test a system for removing so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, from leachate — a first for regulators in Vermont. The company would also be required to monitor rivers where treated water is discharged.
In an email, Casella called those terms fair.
Peter Blair is a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. He says they'll be looking at how the chemicals are removed, and what happens to them.
"We're still concerned with the fact that leachate is going to be discharged into Vermont waters," he said. "Now, it's just concentrated at the Montpelier facility."
Blair says this will be the first time a New England state has required PFAS removal as part of a pre-treatment permit for a landfill.
Vermonters can weigh in on the permit at meetings in Newport and Montpelier in late October.
— Abagael Giles
6. Vaccination rate for Vermont college campuses is just under 95%
State officials say they're encouraged that so many college students in Vermont have decided to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Many colleges have imposed vaccination mandates that require non-vaccinated students to be tested weekly.
Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak says the positivity rate at Vermont colleges is far below the statewide average.
"The vaccination rate now is just under 95% for college campuses continuing to go up, as more and more international students get vaccinated and as the schools get more and more information about those who have not yet submitted their vaccination status."
Pieciak says that almost 7,000 college students were tested last week. Of that, 68 tested positive.
— Bob Kinzel
UVM reports 128 cases so far this semester
The University of Vermont reported 45 new COVID-19 infections among its students in the last week. There weren't any cases among the school's faculty or staff.
The new student cases were almost evenly split among people living on and off campus. UVM offers free testing for all students, though only unvaccinated people are required to get tested weekly.
UVM, like many Vermont colleges, required students get a COVID-19 shot this semester. Only about 1.5% of students were granted exemptions from the vaccine mandate, according to VTDigger.
Since Aug. 23, 128 students have tested positive for the coronavirus.
— Liam Elder-Connors
7. Vermont Climate Council seeks input on Climate Action Plan at events this week
Vermont's Climate Council is working under a Dec. 1 deadline to adopt a plan for how the state will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The cuts — and the deadline — are required by the Global Warming Solutions Act.
At an event Tuesday night at Elmore State Park designed to get the public's input on reaching those goals, Stowe resident Taylor Evans was among roughly 45 people who came to weigh in.
"I think this is a great start because Vermont probably is in the best position of any state to take on some of the things that we're doing, because of how ignited the population is and how passionate they are about the state and about what's going on," Evans said.
Ideas ranged from addressing the housing crisis, to changing zoning laws, to federal funds for changing Vermont's infrastructure.
Jane Knight drove from Montpelier to share her perspective:
"I love to ride the train, and so it's hard to create that type of system in Vermont, without being part of a greater system across the country," Knight said.
Transportation makes up 40% of Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector.
You can weigh in Wednesday at another Climate Council event in East Dorset, or at presentations Thursday in Island Pond and on Sunday in Colchester. All events are outdoors.
— Abagael Giles
Abagael Giles compiled and edited this post.