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News roundup: Vt. officials report another COVID hospitalization record, plus 8 new deaths

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

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Wednesday, Jan. 19.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron 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. State officials report second day in a row of record-high hospitalizations, 8 more deaths

For a second day in a row, Vermont health officials reported another record-high number of COVID hospitalizations, 122 in total. Of those, 25 people are in the ICU.

The Health Department also reported that eight more Vermonters have died. The state has now recorded 507 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Officials documented 1,344 new COVID cases Wednesday. The state’s positivity rate is just under 13%.

- Elodie Reed

Vt. hospitals treating more COVID patients with fewer staff than throughout pandemic

Many Vermont hospitals are treating more COVID patients, with fewer staff, than they have throughout the pandemic.

The Department of Health reported a record high yesterday of 116 Vermonters hospitalized with COVID.

Dr. Trey Dobson of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington expects hospital numbers to remain high.

“The actual number is not as important as the direction,” Dobson said. “And we’re still going up with cases. So then, therefore our hospitalizations are going to keep going up, and they’re going to lag weeks behind [when] cases start to decline.”

Dobson encourages all Vermonters to make sure they are up to date on their COVID vaccines. And right now if you’re vulnerable to disease – either because you’re unvaccinated or immunocompromised or elderly — to limit your gatherings with others, just for the next few weeks.

- Lexi Krupp

Health commissioner: Rapid tests should be OK in cold weather

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says it’s unlikely cold winter temperatures will affect rapid COVID tests being sent through the mail.

Levine spoke to VPR’s Vermont Edition on Tuesday.

“The manufacturer QuickVue says that, if you let them thaw to room temperature at a gradual basis, and then you choose to use them, they should be fine. And we've heard reports from people who've been using these and had the same concerns, and they reported correct results,” he said.

Vermont recently made 350,000 free rapid COVID tests available by mail through a pilot program with the National Institutes of Health and Amazon.

The White House on Tuesday launched its rapid test mailing program. Every American household is eligible for four at-home tests to be delivered by the post office, the administration says.

You can request tests at COVIDTests.gov.

- Brittany Patterson

2. Gov. Scott raises alarm bells on workforce shortage

Gov. Phil Scott says Vermont has a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to address its growing demographic crisis. And, he says, that failing to deal with this issue could result in a sharp reduction of critical state services in the future.

Speaking Tuesday during his annual budget address, Scott noted that the state has lost roughly 24,000 workers in the last two years. That’s largely due to the COVID pandemic.

And he says that up to a third of Vermont's health care workers and teachers could retire in the next five years.

Scott says this is the most important issue facing the state of Vermont.

“If we don’t work to solve this problem now, it will be there down the road in the future, and it will be much bigger and more complex. Future governors and legislators will have to make decisions that are regressive, like slashing services and raising taxes and fees to balance budgets,” he said.

Scott has proposed using hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funds to enhance workforce development programs aimed at attracting more young workers to the state.

- Bob Kinzel

Gov. Scott proposes climate change spending

During his budget address Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced a $216 million package to address climate change.

The money will go to building out infrastructure and incentives for electric vehicles. Scott says it would also fund weatherization and upgrades to the grid to make it easier to store renewable energy.

“These initiatives will make us safer and move us closer to our climate goals in a way that diversifies the green economy,” he said.

The governor is calling for Vermont to spend $72 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds on stormwater and sewer system upgrades around the state.

And his budget allocates $5 million for grants that help small communities build out trails and other outdoor infrastructure.

- Abagael Giles

Senate Pro Tem says governor’s tax relief plan needs to be restructured

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says she supports Gov. Phil Scott’s decision to prioritize workforce development programs in his budget.

But Balint says the governor’s plan to cut taxes by $50 million is a fragmented approach that needs to be drastically restructured.

Scott proposed a series of tax cuts to benefit retirees, young families with children, and people with high student debt.

Balint says she favors a larger tax cut plan that is targeted directly at families who have experienced severe financial challenges during the pandemic.

“It doesn’t feel like an integrated solution, and so one of the things I’m really looking at is, how do we make a substantive, large investment to Vermont families, especially those with children,” she said.

The tax proposals will now be reviewed by the House Ways and Means committee.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Schools offering free grab-and-go meals to students

A Chittenden County school district will this week resume offering free grab-and-go meals to students when classes are cancelled or remote due to COVID

Essex-Westford School District will also provide breakfast and lunch to students who are quarantining, as the omicron variant continues to surge through Vermont.

The district previously offered free to-go meals during the pandemic, but Child Nutrition Program Senior Manager Scott Fay says that was when classes were fully remote or hybrid.

With schools now prioritizing in-person learning, he says there are fewer staff members to provide grab-and-go meals.

“Our capacity is much less for these remote meals. Because of staff shortages due to COVID, it’s a stress to our system we hadn’t seen last year or the year before,” Fay said.

Fay says the district had to close K-8 schools Friday, and an elementary school another two days last week, due to staffing issues.

- Kevin Trevellyan

4. Vermont’s new U.S. attorney mum on safe injection sites

Vermont’s new top law enforcement official says he wants to curb the opioid epidemic in the state — but won’t comment on how his office would handle safe injections sites.

Nikolas Kerest was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for the district of Vermont last month.

He says his office believes in prevention and treatment — as well as prosecution — as tools to address Vermont’s opioid epidemic.

But Kerest tells Vermont Edition he won’t comment on how his office would support sites where illegal drug use could be monitored so people don't overdose.

“Those safe injection sites present complicated issues that, at this point, are hypothetical, or create hypothetical violations of federal law. And as a general matter, we don't, and I don't, comment on hypothetical violations of federal law,” he said.

Vermont saw a 70% increase in overdose deaths in the year ending in April — a higher increase than any other state during the pandemic.

New York City opened the first safe injection site in the U.S. in November.

- Matthew Smith

5. State Board of Education agreed Wednesday to let Ripton leave school district

The State Board of Education on Wednesday agreed to let the town of Ripton leave its school district, which merged under Act 46.

But the breakup has been messy.

Ripton voted to leave, but the town has not been able to join another supervisory union.

Ripton School Board Chair Steve Cash said the town will have a tough time on its own.

“This situation was not an outcome we anticipated,” Cash said. “And when we engaged with our town about withdrawal we did not contemplate this, we were under the impression that our town was too small to become its own SU.”

As a stand-alone supervisory union, Ripton will have to pay for its own transportation and special ed costs.

 - Howard Weiss-Tisman

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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