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News roundup: Vermont's COVID positivity rate continues to rise

A yellow background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the "R" of roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the thriving common loon population and more for Wednesday, Dec. 1.

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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’s COVID positivity rate continues to rise

The percentage of Vermonters testing positive for COVID-19 continued to rise Wednesday, as state health officials reported 497 new infections and three new deaths.

The rising positivity rate is now 4.8% -- up from 3.8% this time last week.

Hospitalizations dipped slightly to 81, but virus-linked hospitalizations remain among the highest levels Vermont has seen in the pandemic.

Over the last week, state data show unvaccinated people made up 71% of Vermont's hospitalizations, and 81% of patients in critical care.

- Matthew Smith

Canada requires travelers 12 and older to be vaccinated to board planes and trains

Starting Wednesday, travelers 12 and older in Canada will not be able to board a plane or passenger train if they aren't vaccinated against COVID-19.

The CBC reports the national policy went into effect at the end of October, but for the past month, a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours was accepted as a substitute for most travelers.

Now the CBC reports the strict requirement for vaccinations is in full effect, as Canada reacts to its first confirmed cases of the omicron variant of the virus.

More than 83% of Canadians 5 and older have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine; in Quebec, it's 85%.

- Matthew Smith

COVID outbreak shuts down Springfield elementary school for rest of the week

A Springfield elementary school has been shut down for the rest of the week due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Elm Hill School hopes to reopen this coming Monday, according to a letter the superintendent sent out to parents earlier this week.

The school had a high number of positive COVID tests before Thanksgiving, and the district decided to keep the school closed this week to control the threat to students, families and staff.

The district has been working with state health officials and hopes to hold a drive-through testing program Thursday for all staff and students.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

UVM Medical Center converts hospital space into critical care beds

Growing strain on ICU capacity has compelled Vermont’s largest hospital to convert some of its operating room space into five new critical care beds.

And Dr. Steven Leffler, chief operating officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center, says the move could delay surgeries for non-life-threatening conditions.

“We’re seeing an increased census almost day over day for COVID right now, and so we made some changes to be prudent with our bed capacity and our people so we’d be available for people who need us,” he said.

UVM administrators notified hospital staff of the move on Monday evening.

The hospital has put a temporary freeze on scheduling all non-emergency surgeries.

Leffler says the hospital hopes to have the five new ICU beds up and running by Monday.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Gov. Scott promotes post-Thanksgiving COVID testing

Gov. Phil Scott is encouraging Vermonters who celebrated Thanksgiving with anyone outside their immediate household to get tested for COVID-19.

In early and mid-November, roughly 10,000 Vermonters were getting tested every day.

However during the holiday week, there was a significant decline in the number of tests.

Scott says frequent testing is an essential part of the state's overall COVID response.

"Because it's been a critical tool in helping to prevent the spread of COVID -- and Vermont does more testing than any other state -- finding cases helps contain them,” he said.

The number of COVID tests administered in Vermont has grown by roughly 500% since the beginning of the summer.

- Bob Kinzel

State officials urging parents to vaccinate their young children

Vermont leads the country in COVID vaccination rates for children ages 5 to 11, but state officials are continuing their efforts to persuade parents to vaccinate young children in the next few weeks.

Roughly 40% of all Vermont children ages 5 to 11 have received their first vaccine dose.

Mike Pieciak, who handles COVID data modeling for the state, says officials are trying to make it as easy as possible for additional children to be vaccinated.

"And it’s really critical because that age group continues to have about double the case rate of all the other age groups when you look at the most recent data. So it's really critical to get that age group vaccinated in particular,” he said.

Pieciak says the state is continuing to hold public forums for parents who want to learn more about the vaccination process.

- Bob Kinzel

COVID surge expected to continue

State officials say they expect Vermont's recent COVID surge to continue for at least another month.

Mike Pieciak is commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, the state agency responsible for compiling COVID data.

He says the rise in cases in Quebec over the last month is a strong indicator of what's likely to happen in Vermont in the coming weeks.

"When we look at their case rates we see that they have been increasing like much of New England through the last number of months, more particularly in November as the weather has gotten colder. So again we do anticipate cases going back to where they were prior to the Thanksgiving holiday,” he said.

Pieciak says COVID vaccinations and booster shots offer the best protection for Vermonters during this surge. He noted that state data from November show unvaccinated Vermonters were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than people who had received a booster.

The Health Department is encouraging everyone 18 and older to get a booster shot as soon as possible.

- Bob Kinzel

Use of COVID antibody treatment ramping up in Vermont

As the number of COVID cases ramps in Vermont, so is the use of monoclonal antibodies to treat the disease.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Vermont hospitals are ordering more doses of the antibody treatments, and administering them more frequently to COVID patients.

“If you go back to the beginning of September, we used a total of 17 doses across the state. In the last week, this has increased to almost 225 doses,” he said.

Levine says the treatment works best in the first five days after someone is infected with COVID, when symptoms are still mild to moderate.

Levine says early treatment of COVID with monoclonal antibodies can reduce the chances of hospitalization by 70%.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Former Vt. health commissioner calling for statewide mask mandate

A former Vermont health commissioner is calling for a statewide mask mandate in indoor public spaces.

Dr. Harry Chen, who served as commissioner of health prior to Dr. Mark Levine, wrote a commentary Tuesday urging Gov. Phil Scott to institute a mask mandate.

At his weekly COVID briefing Tuesday, Scott said he remains steadfast in his opposition to any COVID-related public health mandates.

“From my standpoint having a mask mandate doesn’t make it so,” Scott said. “It doesn’t make people wear masks. The people who want to wear masks are wearing them now.”

Chen said a mask mandate would reduce transmission of COVID in Vermont, and relieve strain on an overburdened health care system.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Vermont scientists document record loon numbers

Vermont's common loon population is thriving, says Vermont Fish and Wildlife. Scientists counted a record number of nesting pairs in the Green Mountain State this year.

Some 109 pairs of loons nested in Vermont in 2021. That's the highest count since scientists started monitoring them here in the late ‘70s.

Biologists with Vermont's Loon Conservation Project found those pairs hatched 125 chicks, with 84 surviving through August.

About 30 years ago, there were just seven nesting pairs in the state. The birds made it off Vermont's endangered species list in 2005.

One scientist involved called Vermont's loon project "a tremendous success."

However, nesting loons are easily disturbed by anglers and paddlers. And the recent Vermont Climate Assessment found if global greenhouse gas emissions aren't curbed, the loon is expected to disappear from Vermont in the next 25 years due to climate change.

- Abagael Giles

3. Vt. Public Service Dept. report shows 30% of state has strongest broadband service

A new report from Vermont's Public Service Department shows that only about 30% of the state has the strongest broadband service that's capable of running multiple devices.

It’s the first report in two years, due to the pandemic.

Clay Purvis, Vermont’s telecommunications director, says it highlights the amount of work still ahead for the state's Communications Union Districts, or CUDs.

“You know I really do hope the CUDs are able to pull it off,” Purvis said. “But I think the road is going to be longer and harder than a lot of people think.”

The number of homes with “adequate” service increased slightly since the last report, in 2019.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

4. Local newspapers experiencing supply chain disruptions

Several local newspapers have been late to newsstands and absent from mailboxes in recent weeks. They’ve been delayed due to a labor shortage at the printing press.

With their printing company facing a staffing shortage, a COVID-19 outbreak, and equipment failures, the five weekly newspapers owned by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group recently didn't make it out on time.

Editors there say that as the papers of record for nearly 20 communities, it's important they continue to print legal notices from local governments and provide news for those without adequate internet access.

Other weeklies around the region are experiencing similar supply chain delays, including The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

- Anna Van Dine

5. National Guard members returning home to Vermont

More than 300 soliders with the Vermont National Guard are returning home.

The soldiers are from the 172nd law enforcement detachment, which in January deployed to a Romanian air base, and from the 3rd Battalion of the 172nd infantry regiment, which deployed in February to help U.S. Central Command. They also aided in evacuating the airport in the Afghan capital of Kabul back in August.

WCAX reports the first group of soldiers arrive on Wednesday, with all returning soldiers expected back by the end of next week.

- Matthew Smith

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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