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News roundup: State officials expecting dramatic COVID surge after the holidays

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 and more for Wednesday, Dec. 22.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta and omicron variants are now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and find the latest vaccination data online any time.

1. State officials report 653 new COVID cases Wednesday

Vermont health officials reported 653 new COVID cases Wednesday.

The state's seven-day positivity rate was unchanged today, at 4.4%.

The number of Vermonters in the hospital continues to decline. Today, 53 people are hospitalized.

Vermont's vaccination data remains unchanged. Some 85% of Vermonters 5 or older have now gotten at least one vaccine dose, including 52% of 5- to 11-year-olds.

- Brittany Patterson

Quebec breaks COVID infection record on Tuesday

Quebec reported more than 5,000 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday, once again shattering the province's record for cases in a single day.

That's despite strict new public health orders Monday that shut down schools, bars and movie theaters across the province.

The CBC reports about 80% of those new infections are the omicron variant of the virus, which was first detected in Quebec in late November.

As hospitals in the province prepare for an expected spike in patients, half of all scheduled surgeries are being postponed amid acute staffing shortages.

Montreal mayor Valérie Plante once again declared a local state of emergency for the city, to curb the spread of the virus.

It's the second state of emergency for the city during the pandemic, which was allowed to expire in August amid high vaccination rates.

Premier François will hold a news conference Wednesday at 6 p.m. to further update the province on public health measures related to omicron.

- Matthew Smith

State officials predicting dramatic COVID surge after holidays

State officials are predicting a dramatic surge in COVID cases after the holidays because the new omicron variant is far more contagious than previous variants.

Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak says it's possible that daily case numbers in Vermont could jump, from their current average rate of roughly 400 cases a day, to over 1,000 a day.

“You'll see that cases are likely to increase over the next four weeks, and potentially could get as high as 1,000 cases per day on this model, on the very high end,” Pieciak said. “So again, it's reason for us to be cautious, and reason for us to take this very seriously heading into the holidays and with the variant upon us."

Pieciak says the projections are another reason why it's important for all Vermonters to be fully vaccinated including a booster shot.

Gov. Phil Scott says there's compelling evidence to show that omicron can spread twice as fast as delta. If Vermonters do socialize during the holidays, he is encouraging the public to meet in small groups and to practice what he calls "the rule of three."

"Be fully vaccinated number one,” he said. “Number two, get tested before you go. Number three, wear a mask. If you can check two of the three boxes, it's pretty safe."

It could be difficult to schedule an appointment at a state testing site in some parts of Vermont in the next week or two, because many of the appointment slots are already booked.

In addition, some parts of the state are also reporting a shortage of at-home COVID test kits.

- Bob Kinzel

Education Secretary says school masking guidelines likely to be pushed back

Education Secretary Dan French says he’ll likely push back a school masking guideline that was supposed to take effect in January.

Schools that reach an 80% vaccination rate were supposed to allow their students to be in the classroom without masks by Jan. 18, but French says the omicron variant will delay the change.

He also anticipates the new virus variant will further stress the state's education workers.

“I think the biggest challenge for schools in terms of omicron will come in areas related to workforce and staffing,” French said. “More illness from COVID, even if the illness is less severe, will impact staff availability and the pool of substitutes is very limited at this point.”

French says he will issue recommendations to address the workforce crisis early next year.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

COVID FEMA teams arrive in Vermont to alleviate pressure on hospitals

A number of federal COVID “emergency response teams" are being sent to Vermont to help alleviate pressure on hospitals in the coming weeks.

The teams, which include doctors, nurses and paramedics, are part of a strategy by the Biden administration to help states that are expecting a surge of omicron cases after the holidays.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says the first two teams have arrived at the UVM Medical Center and the Southwest Medical Center in Bennington.

"These teams will help with the anticipated spike in cases after the holidays,” Smith said.

Vermont officials say they also expect thousands of additional at-home COVID tests to be sent to the state as part of the new federal strategy.

- Bob Kinzel

State officials say Vermonters 46 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID if unvaccinated or not vaccinated fully

State health officials say they're encouraging all Vermonters to get a COVID booster shot because new data shows that it's the most effective way to prevent serious illness.

Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak says the vast majority of Vermonters who are currently hospitalized with COVID have not been vaccinated.

He says this group accounts for roughly 85% of all COVID hospitalizations, while fully-vaccinated individuals represent less than 2% of these cases.

“"You'll see that there's a 46 times difference between those who are not protected or not fully vaccinated and those who are fully protected with the full vaccination and the booster shot,” Pieciak said.

Pieciak is also encouraging all Vermonters to get a booster shot, because the number of COVID cases is projected to increase by 50% after the upcoming holiday period.

- Bob Kinzel

Scott administration recommends businesses consider requiring vaccinations among staff, customers

The Scott administration this week issued new recommendations to try to get businesses to consider requiring vaccinations among their staff and customers.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said it could be one way to encourage more people in the 18- to 29-year-old age group to get fully vaccinated.

“A powerful incentive is being able to get into an event,” Levine said. “A powerful incentive is being able to get into a venue that you want to go to. A powerful incentive is to keep your job.”

Those 18 and older who are not fully vaccinated, were 30% more likely to die from COVID, compared with those fully vaccinated and boosted, according to state data.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

2. Everyone Eats program funded through March 2022

A program that provides restaurant-made meals for Vermonters in need of food assistance will continue into the New Year.

The initiative is called Everyone Eats. The idea is to help address food insecurity while supporting local restaurants.

The state program pays restaurants $10 per meal. They are available for pickup at food shelves, churches, and senior centers across the state.

The state will pay for the program through March of 2022, with funding from FEMA.

Everyone Eats has been in place for over a year and served almost 2 million meals.

- Lexi Krupp

3. Burlington City Council votes to start new search for police chief

The Burlington City Council has voted to start a new search for a city police chief.

Progressive city councilors offered the resolution during Monday night’s meeting, and it passed just after midnight.

Mayor Miro Weinberger last month asked the council to hire a search firm, increase the chief’s pay and give the chief disciplinary power, among other requests.

The resolution that passed included hiring a search firm, but did not include the mayor's request to raise the salary cap to $160,000.

But VTDigger reports, when the council failed to approve all of his requests for a new search, the mayor pledged to abandon efforts to find more candidates for the job, and move forward with the two who have already applied, including current acting Chief Jon Murad.

- Matthew Smith

4. St. Johnsbury community rallies to help town buy Observatory Knob natural area

Observatory Knob is a 117-acre parcel of pasture and woods within walking distance from downtown St. Johnsbury. When it came up for sale in March of 2021, the community rallied to help the town buy it.

Chad Whitehead is St. Johnsbury's town manager. He says they received more than 125 donations – ranging from $10 to $5,000 – from local residents and businesses.

"It's that you can live right in a developed neighborhood, but have this outside recreational asset right at your doorstep,” Whitehead said. “So you're not just walking on sidewalks. You can just take a few steps further and you're in the woods."

Ultimately, a $200,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board helped seal the deal.

The property was home to an observatory in the 1880s. It's so popular that hikers have filled more than 10 summit logbooks in the last 15 years.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed compiled and edited this post.

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