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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Scott to Quarantine After Potential COVID-19 Exposure at Press Conference

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 6:42 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing
Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine will quarantine and be tested for the coronavirus after a "contractor" who worked at two recent press conferences tested positive for COVID-19.

"The briefings are conducted under state guidance, with safety protocols, including physical distancing, in place," the governor's office announced Tuesday evening in a statement. But "out of an abundance of caution," administration officials who attended press conferences on January 15 and 19 will quarantine, while Scott will continue to fulfill his duties remotely "until further notice."

Scott has hosted the regular press briefings at the Pavilion Auditorium on State Street in Montpelier at least twice a week since the pandemic began. His office said roughly 17 people attended both briefings in question. Among the typical attendees are several administration officials and staffers from Scott's office, a handful of broadcast journalists and at least one certified American Sign Language interpreter. Two interpreters worked Tuesday's briefing.

State contact tracers have begun investigating the incident and will reach out to anyone identified as a close contact, or those who spent more than 15 minutes within six feet or less of the positive case. Scott's office has also reached out to everyone at the briefings.

Neither Scott nor Levine has been vaccinated; Scott's spokesperson told VTDigger.org last month that both he and Levine planned to wait for their turn in Vermont's vaccine rollout. The state expects to begin vaccinating people above the ages of 75 starting the week of January 25. Scott is 62; Levine is 67.

Scott's spokespeople did not immediately return questions about whether regular press conference attendees receive COVID-19 tests, or whether the contractor was symptomatic. And it was not immediately clear when the contractor was last tested for the virus.

Scott's press briefing on Tuesday lasted two hours and concluded around 1 p.m., five hours before the press release went out.

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College Students Return to Vermont Amid Soaring COVID-19 Case Counts

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 5:03 PM

University of Vermont campus in Burlington - COURTESY OF SALLY MCCAY
  • Courtesy of Sally McCay
  • University of Vermont campus in Burlington

Updated 6:47 p.m.

Thousands of students are moving back into college residence halls around Vermont this week in the midst of a winter surge in the ongoing pandemic.

At many schools, the start of the spring semester will resemble the kickoff of the fall term nearly five months ago, with students undergoing a rigorous quarantine and testing process required by the state on their arrival.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont are more than 25 times higher than when students arrived at schools late in August. Back then, daily new case counts hovered around six. This week, they've averaged 160. And in some areas of the country where students live, the levels are much higher.

State and college officials alike are banking on the success of the virus mitigation strategies that kept levels of COVID-19 low on Vermont's campuses during the fall semester.

"We're hopeful," said Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health. "We still think what we're doing is probably the best thing that we can do."

Those measures include a mandated quarantine period for all students. Also mandated: testing for all students after the first seven days on campus.

Beyond that, said Gary Derr, the University of Vermont's vice president for operations and public safety, the on-campus strategy resembles the the fall's. Students will be reminded to wear facial coverings, wash their hands and maintain social distance.

And just as during the fall semester, UVM will continue mandatory weekly student testing. During the fall semester, the more than 150,000 tests at UVM revealed 99 cases among students and 19 cases among faculty and staff, according to weekly reports on the school's website.

Those numbers are expected to soar this semester, however.

"We're preparing to see more positives, just like the state is," said Derr.

During the two weeks ending January 17, 59 students tested positive — more than half the number of positive student tests during the entire fall semester. But those numbers, Derr noted, were reported after the holidays. State officials have confirmed that, based on their contact-tracing data, Christmas gatherings helped drive a surge in cases.

"I think what we're expecting and hoping for is that that [weekly case number] will start to drop," said Derr.

If students fail to show up for weekly testing, the penalties can be steep. The tests are mandated by the school's Green and Gold Promise, which lays out student conduct requirements during the pandemic. Students in "egregious" violation of the pledge may be fined $250 on their first offense, and suspended on the second.

A UVM spokesperson said the school fined 799 students for violations during the fall semester, and suspended nine.

Though many campus strategies will be the same this semester, one thing will look different: Because of the statewide ban on multi-household gatherings, schools must define what a "household" means on their campuses, and ask students to restrict non-academic gatherings to members of their "household."

That will look different from campus to campus, depending on how each school's housing is set up, explained Dolan. "We asked colleges to keep with the spirit of what we were trying to do with social gatherings," she said.

At a student town hall earlier this month, officials at St. Michael's College, which reported 79 cases during the fall semester — with dozens connected to a hockey-related outbreak in Montpelier — urged students to abide by the household restrictions. The school defines a household as either the residents of a townhouse, suite, or apartment, or, for those in single and double rooms, up to four people from the same wing of a residence hall.

Abiding by these rules is especially important as reports of a more contagious variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, continue to spread, said Mary Masson, director of student health services at St. Mike's. Though the variant has not yet been identified in Vermont, it's been reported just over the border in New York State.

"It tells us that we have to be all the more vigilant," said Masson.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Vaccinations of Vermonters 75 and Older to Begin Later This Month

Posted By on Fri, Jan 15, 2021 at 2:29 PM

Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing resident Elsie Johnson gets vaccinated. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTER MEDICAL CENTER
  • Photo Courtesy of Porter Medical Center
  • Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing resident Elsie Johnson gets vaccinated.
Updated at 3:56 p.m.

Vermont will begin offering the COVID-19 vaccine to people ages 75 and older starting the week of January 25, officials said at a press conference Friday, unveiling the next phase of the state's highly anticipated vaccination plan.

But officials stressed that the vaccine rollout remains hampered by limited supply, noting Vermont continues to receive only about 8,800 vaccine doses from the federal government each week — far less than initial projections.

“We know many are anxiously waiting for their vaccines — and rightfully so," Gov. Phil Scott said. "We want to get every dose out just as quickly as we possibly can. But with so few doses available, we need everyone to be patient.”

The Trump administration raised hopes for expanded access earlier this week in announcing that it would release all doses of available vaccine rather than hold a second dose for those in early phases (both authorized vaccines are two-dose regimens). But the Washington Post reported on Friday that the administration had already begun shipping out reserves last month, dashing hopes of a windfall.

Vermont officials say they are now planning to proceed with the current supply chain, which should allow them to vaccinate the 49,000 or so Vermonters aged 75 or older in about six weeks.

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Friday, January 8, 2021

Vermont's COVID-19 Infections Reach New Highs in Recent Days

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2021 at 4:20 PM

Staff testing samples at the Vermont Department of Health lab - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Staff testing samples at the Vermont Department of Health lab
Vermont has recorded more than 400 new coronavirus cases since Wednesday, the highest two-day total since the disease was first found in the state last March. Health officials are keeping tabs on transmissions stemming from holiday gatherings and announced positive tests among staff at four state prisons.

The Vermont Department of Health reported 226 cases on Thursday and 202 on Friday. The numbers have pushed the state to record-high weekly case growth, though the figures continue to compare well with those in other states. Twenty-nine people are currently hospitalized with the disease.

Continue reading »

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Thursday, January 7, 2021

Police, Firefighters Moved Up Vermont's Vaccine Priority List

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2021 at 5:26 PM

Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine - COURTESY OF RYAN MERCER/UVM HEALTH NETWORK
  • Courtesy of Ryan Mercer/UVM Health Network
  • Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine
Vermont's cops and firefighters will soon be able to receive coronavirus vaccines after they persuaded the state to move them into the highest priority group.

The Vermont Department of Health confirmed the change Thursday. It was finalized on Monday, a spokesperson said.

The tweak reclassifies police and fire personnel as "emergency medical services," which are part of the so-called "1a" priority phase that is currently underway. Ambulance and rescue squads were already in that group, along with health care workers and residents of long-term care homes.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Winooski Schools Extend Remote Learning as COVID-19 Cases Mount

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 8:03 PM

On the Winooski school campus - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • On the Winooski school campus
This fall, COVID-19 stayed away from Winooski schools. During the first three months of the school year, there were no reported cases of the virus in the district.

As things remained steady, K-5 students ramped up to four days a week of in-person school in October and November, while middle and high school students learned under a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

But in early December, the district reported three cases of COVID-19 within a week and a half, with a fourth case coming soon after. On December 9, the school district transitioned to fully remote learning.

Since the first recorded case, a total of 66 Winooski students, teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. With approximately 800 students and 200 teachers and staff in the district, that means about 6.6 percent — or 1 in 15 members — of the school community tested positive for COVID-19 in about a month.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

UVM Medical Center Confirms Cyberattack Involved Ransomware

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2020 at 6:02 PM

SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf
The fall cyberattack that crippled University of Vermont Medical Center servers and disrupted vital patient care for weeks involved a form of ransomware, the hospital disclosed for the first time Tuesday.

Officials had previously refused to say whether ransomware was used, citing guidance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the FBI recently gave the hospital permission to describe some aspects of the attack, said Dr. Doug Gentile, the medical center's chief medical information officer.

"What I can tell you is this was in the class of ransomware attacks," Gentile told reporters on a Zoom call. "We did not get a phone call. We did not get a letter. But we did have a file deposited [on our system] that gave instructions on how to contact the attackers."

That file provided a web address and instructed the hospital to contact the perpetrators if it wished to free its system, according to Gentile, who said he could not be sure of the motivation behind the attacks because the hospital ultimately never made contact — nor did it receive any ransom request.

"But we assume they were asking for money," Gentile said.

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Vermont Nursing Home Residents Begin Getting Vaccines

Posted By and on Tue, Dec 22, 2020 at 3:46 PM

Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing resident Elsie Johnson gets vaccinated on Monday. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTER MEDICAL CENTER
  • Photo Courtesy of Porter Medical Center
  • Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing resident Elsie Johnson gets vaccinated on Monday.
A team of pharmacists jabbed more than a hundred residents and staff of Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing on Monday morning, making the Middlebury home among the first long-term care facilities in the country to begin receiving doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

More than two-thirds of residents received their first shots in their rooms, while half of the home’s workers took turns getting inoculated in a common area. The clinic marked a milestone in the fight against a virus that has proven especially devastating to nursing homes.

“It feels hopeful,” the home’s medical director, Dr. Karen Fromhold, said.

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Commuters Unhappy About Plans to Again Suspend Charlotte-Essex Ferry Route

Posted By on Fri, Dec 18, 2020 at 3:51 PM

Aboard a Lake Champlain Transportation ferry - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Aboard a Lake Champlain Transportation ferry
Five days a week, Tara Smith and her two sons take the 8 a.m. ferry from Charlotte to Essex, N.Y., for work and school.

The North Ferrisburgh mom is vice president for programs at an educational nonprofit based on Main Street in Essex; her job sometimes requires that she works in-person with students at North Country schools. Her boys, ages 3 and 6, attend the Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, just a few minutes from the Essex ferry dock.

Smith has been commuting to work on the ferry for about eight years. But starting January 4, she’ll have to figure out an alternative option — as will others who rely on the route for professional, educational and medical reasons. That's the day the Burlington-based Lake Champlain Transportation Company will suspend Charlotte-Essex ferry service.

“Due to the significant decrease in ridership as a result of the pandemic, LCT has temporarily suspended service at our Charlotte/Essex Crossing and consolidated our resources to maintain service at our Grand Isle/Cumberland Head Crossing,” the company said in a statement on Friday. “We will resume service at our southern crossing as soon as we are able.”

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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Vermont Foodbank Bags $9 Million Gift From Billionaire MacKenzie Scott

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2020 at 2:06 PM

Andrea Solazzo packs produce for food shelf delivery - COURTESY OF THE VERMONT FOODBANK
  • Courtesy of the Vermont Foodbank
  • Andrea Solazzo packs produce for food shelf delivery
The Vermont Foodbank has received the largest gift in its history — $9 million — as part of a $4.2 billion blast of charitable giving announced this week by MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The gift was unsolicited, came as a total surprise to the organization and was kept quiet until Scott announced it Tuesday in a blog post.

“It was a little bit of a shock,” Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles said. “It’s by far the largest gift the Foodbank has received.”

In a post titled "384 Ways to Help" — a reference to the number of organizations that received gifts — Scott wrote that she and her advisers looked at nonprofits "with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital."

The post did not reveal the amount each organization received.

Sayles told Seven Days on Thursday that he doesn’t know how the $9 million was determined, but it's approximately equivalent to the nonprofit’s entire 2019 operating budget.

“I would call this a transformational gift,” Sayles said. “It will give the organization the opportunity to do things that certainly we would dream about doing but really wouldn’t have realistic expectations of executing.”

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