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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Vermont Issues Guidance for Returning College Students

Posted By on Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 9:06 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont will require all college students returning to campuses this fall to comply with a strict regimen of testing, quarantining and social distancing to try to prevent the kind of COVID-19 outbreaks sweeping the nation.

The announcement of the protocols Tuesday was intended to quell local fears about an influx of students from places with higher infection rates and convince anxious students that in-person education in the state was a low-risk proposition.

“The State of Vermont aims to make the state the safest place to go to college,” said Richard Schneider, the recently retired president of Norwich University. “All of our college presidents have that in mind and have that as their target.”

Schneider chaired the state higher education task force that drafted the new mandatory guidelines announced Tuesday. Schools are free to enact even tougher rules.

Gov. Phil Scott said he was confident that the new rules were strict enough and the state’s track record in managing the pandemic strong enough to allow Vermont to welcome thousands of students back to school.

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Monday, July 6, 2020

Auditor Candidate Accuses Incumbent of Playing Politics

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 8:21 PM

Linda Joy Sullivan - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Linda Joy Sullivan
A candidate for state auditor has accused her opponent, four-term incumbent Auditor Doug Hoffer, of playing politics with his office by timing a recent report to hit just as voting for the August primary got under way.

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset) issued a statement Monday that accused  Hoffer, a Democrat in office since 2013, of issuing a July 1 health care report to coincide with the start of voting by absentee ballot.

But Hoffer struck back Monday afternoon, defending his office’s work and calling her statement “riddled with errors” and a “back-handed political stunt.”

The spat, the first significant salvo in the so-far subdued statewide race, illustrates the pressure some candidates for political office — and challengers of incumbents in particular — feel to attract attention to their campaigns during a pandemic with the primary now just over a month away.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Vermont Expands Capacity Limits for Restaurants, Event Spaces

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2020 at 3:41 PM

Anastasia Coen, left, and Hunter Thomson at Ken's Pizza - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • Anastasia Coen, left, and Hunter Thomson at Ken's Pizza
Vermont restaurants, entertainment venues and hospitality businesses can begin to welcome more people to their establishments beginning June 26, state officials said Friday.

The venues will be able to permit 75 people or up to 50 percent of the space's allowable capacity, whichever is less. Up to 150 people will be able to gather outside, Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said at an afternoon press conference.

"Our goal at the end of the day is to keep people safe, to keep people healthy," Kurrle said. "In the situation of a restaurant, we're asking people to plan accordingly to try to keep people properly distanced."

Previously, restaurants and entertainment venues were restricted to 25 percent capacity. Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday that he's considering upping the maximum capacity at retail shops, too, in the coming weeks.

"We are working diligently to open things up as fast as we can. We hope Vermonters will venture out to support these businesses, as they begin to open up," Kurrle said. "Our announcement today will not make the hospitality industry whole, but we hope it's another step in the return to profitability."

The Vermont Department of Health on Friday announced nine new cases of COVID-19. The state reported one new death on Thursday, bringing the total to 56.
Vermont's positive COVID-19 test results are tracking below 1 percent, according to Finance Commissioner Michael Pieciak, who is tasked with data modeling during the pandemic. The rate is the lowest in the country, he said.

"Over the next two weeks, we anticipate having a continued, low-level case count," Pieciak said, adding: "Our reopening metrics ... have been steady and trending positive throughout the outbreak and throughout the reopening process."

The Northeast region "can expect to continue to see improvements" in case counts over the next few weeks, Pieciak said. The number of people who can travel to Vermont without quarantining continues to grow. Since last Friday, the state has counted net increase of 12 counties subject to relaxed quarantine rules.

A total of 75 counties in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York — or about 6.8 million people — are free from these restrictions, Pieciak said.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Vermont's Back-to-School Rules Mandate Masks, Temperature Checks and Sanitizer

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2020 at 1:23 PM

A Spanish lesson at Jericho Elementary School - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL FOR KIDS VT
  • File: Glenn Russell for Kids VT
  • A Spanish lesson at Jericho Elementary School
Vermont's schoolchildren will return this fall to vastly different school systems that feature temperature checks to board school buses, mandatory face coverings, closed cafeterias and hand-sanitizer stations at school entrances.

Those measures are included in 23 pages of guidance for K-12 public and private schools that Vermont's Agency of Education and Department of Health released on Wednesday.

Drafted with input from infectious disease experts, pediatricians, and public health and education professionals, the document — “A Strong and Healthy Start: Safety and Health Guidance for Reopening Schools, Fall 2020” — aims to decrease the risk of transmission of COVID-19 among staff and students.

The document states that the guidance may evolve and will be updated as new information becomes available. What is certain, though, is that schools will look and feel markedly different than they did when students were dismissed in mid-March, with enhanced physical distancing measures in place.

Guidelines include daily health screening for students and staff — involving both verbal questions and a temperature check — at the first point of contact. That means students dropped off at school will be checked before they enter the building. Those who take a bus must be screened before they even board. If a student has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, they will be sent home.

If COVID-19 is confirmed in a student or staff member, the school areas they had used will be closed off, cleaned and disinfected.

Additional measures include hand-sanitizing stations and the disinfecting of common spaces and frequently touched surfaces at the beginning, middle and end of each day.

Both students and staff must wear facial coverings — cloth masks or clear facial shields — while inside the school building. If they can't maintain six feet of social distancing when outside, their faces must be covered. That can be waived for students with medical or behavioral conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.

Visitation to schools will be curtailed extensively, and parents will not be able to enter when they drop their kids off.

The document outlines physical-distancing measures that should be implemented to reduce contact between students. When feasible, the same group of students should stay in their designated classroom, and the same teachers and staff should remain with those students all day. The guidance notes that this “will need to be addressed differently to meet the needs of high school (and maybe middle school) students,” but it does not specify what this might look like.

Within classrooms, desks should be spaced six feet apart and facing in one direction. The sharing of art supplies and computer and lab equipment should be limited.  Communal spaces including the cafeteria and gymnasium should be closed unless they are needed for additional classroom space. Students will eat lunch in their classrooms.

Outdoor recess space can be used as long as physical distancing is possible, and playground equipment should be cleaned frequently throughout the day. The teacher’s lounge should be closed, and physical barriers should be installed in reception areas and employee work spaces where distancing isn’t possible.

Group activities with the potential to generate increased respiratory droplets and aerosols, such as singing and music involving brass and woodwind instruments, are to be avoided.

To aid in contact tracing, students should have assigned seats. Staff members should keep track of all those who enter their classrooms and are encouraged to keep a daily list of those they come into close contact with.

Libby Bonesteel, superintendent of Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools, shared her initial thoughts about the document via email. She said she was anticipating much of the guidance related to masks, physical distancing and health checks. Her district is already developing plans for those protocols.

Bonesteel said there were several parts of the guidance she found contradictory. The document states that if children are too young to answer the verbal health screening questions accurately before they enter school, a parent should remain with them. But because parents are not allowed in the building, that means that, in her district, there will be upwards of 250 children and their parents who will have to wait outside each day for screening.

The transportation requirements will be an issue, particularly for rural towns and schools, said Bonesteel. “It is not a bus driver’s job, nor should it be, to do health screenings on children," she wrote. "Hiring bus monitors will be extremely hard for school districts.”

Vicki Graf, principal of Jericho Elementary School, also had concerns about the expense of daily health screenings and additional supplies. Said Graf: “I think our school districts are going to need support from the state to cover these costs.”

The guidelines are here:

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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Vermont to Allow Visitors at Eldercare Facilities, Hospitals

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2020 at 2:04 PM

State officials are aiming to relax visitation rules for residents of long-term care facilities just in time for Father's Day weekend.

Residents will be able to have two visitors per day, as long as they socialize outside, wear facial coverings and keep a safe physical distance, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at a press conference on Wednesday. Visitors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive.

"We are going to try to expedite that in order to have this ready in time for this weekend," Smith said, setting Friday, June 19, as the target date.

The new rules, he said, "will help alleviate some of the loneliness and isolation for long-term care residents" who have been cooped up since March.

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Scott Extends State of Emergency to July 15

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2020 at 3:22 PM

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott on Monday extended Vermont's state of emergency until July 15 in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Scott initially declared a state of emergency in mid-March and has re-upped it three times since. The designation grants him authority to enact broad measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

"Remember, the state of emergency is just a vehicle, or mechanism, to do all the things we need to do to manage our response," Scott said at a press briefing. "It's not the same thing as the stay-at-home order. And it doesn't mean all restrictions stay in place. In fact, it gives us a way to lift them when the time is right." 

To that end, Scott announced that campgrounds can now return to full capacity. He said further steps can be expected in the near future if positive trends continue, with an announcement planned for Wednesday about visiting long-term care facilities.

"I know that with every move we make, some believe it's way too much, too fast. Others believe it's way too little and too slow," Scott said. "I hear and understand the concerns on both sides. But there are no easy answers or simple solutions — and there's certainly no roadmap. "

Officials also provided an update to a coronavirus outbreak in Winooski, which now accounts for 83 of Vermont's 1,128 total cases. Health Commissioner Mark Levine said recent data from the city suggests that the "box it in" testing and contact-tracing strategy may be successfully slowing the spread of the illness.

Levine cautioned that it was "way too early" to "put a checkmark and move on." But he said the state's overall rate of infection remains low enough to continue loosening business restrictions, dismissing any notion that the Winooski outbreak is connected to the reopening of the state's economy.

"We would see [outbreaks] all through the state if that were true," he said.

Scott has said that further outbreaks are inevitable until a vaccine is widely available. As he has done at other briefings during the pandemic, Scott took a brief moment Monday to stress that he will continue to follow the best advice of health experts.

"I know this has felt like a very long journey already. And so much uncertainty remains. You're tired of it, and just want it to be over. I can relate," he said. "But if we continue to stay smart, use common sense and take care of each other, we will get through this." 

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Monday, June 8, 2020

Sixty-Two Chittenden County COVID Cases Linked to Winooski Outbreak

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2020 at 5:11 PM

Health Commissioner Mark Levine (left) and Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: COLIN FLANDERS
  • File: Colin Flanders
  • Health Commissioner Mark Levine (left) and Gov. Phil Scott
At least 62 Chittenden County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since an outbreak was discovered in Winooski two weeks ago, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Monday.

Speaking at a press conference in Montpelier, Levine said that the latest case count included 48 Winooski residents, nine Burlingtonians and five other Chittenden County residents. "As I've said before, the virus doesn't really respect international, national, state or city boundaries," he said. "It spreads because we share the air we breathe."

According to Levine, none of the newly diagnosed have been hospitalized or killed by the disease — and only one in five of those interviewed by Department of Health staffers said they had experienced symptoms. Twenty-four of those diagnosed were under 18 years old, and the median age of the group was 21, Levine said.

State officials said that while they expect the case count to continue to grow in the coming days, they believe it remains concentrated in a particular community of Vermonters. "We continue to be able to make direct connections between the people involved in this case," Gov. Phil Scott said at the press conference. "As the Health Department put it to me, transmission is all within a close-knit web of people."

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Vermont Loosens Restrictions for Restaurants, Tourists

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 4:16 PM

Gov. Phil Scott Friday - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Gov. Phil Scott Friday
Restaurants will be able to reopen for limited indoor dining, and visitors from low-risk areas in the Northeast will be able to visit Vermont under the latest round of Gov. Phil Scott's measures to gradually reopen the state's economy.

Scott said Friday he and public health officials were confident that the modest changes were safe, despite an outbreak of COVID-19 in Winooski, where health officials reported 34 new cases on Thursday.

“The fact is, outbreaks are going to continue,” Scott said. “But that’s exact why we built up our capacity to box them in, and we can start up our economy while also keeping people safe.”

He added, “While there may — and likely will — be more cases, we expect to contain it from spreading more broadly across the city or state.”

For that reason, Scott said that beginning Monday, June 8, restaurants will be able to serve people indoors using up to 25 percent of their seating capacity. Tables must be spaced six feet away, and advance reservations will be required.

“One of the many things that Vermont is known for is local food and craft brews, so I know how important this sector is to our economy,” he said.

While bars are not included in the order because of the typical close proximity of bar seating, Scott said the dining areas of bars and breweries will be allowed to host customers.

“I know they can’t make it on 25 percent capacity, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ll be able to build on this if the number moves in the right direction,” Scott said.

At the moment, however, the state’s numbers are decidedly moving in the wrong direction. The Winooski outbreak represents a significant spike in the daily number of new cases, which have been in the single digits for weeks.

The new cases "will certainly skew our data,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation. Pieciak stressed, however, that the sharp increase would likely “smooth out over time” if, as anticipated, the outbreak is contained. He stressed that neighboring states continue to have far higher infection rates than Vermont, with Maine averaging 33 new cases per day since April 1, and New Hampshire, 69.

That made it tricky for the administration to assert that now is the time to relax restrictions on travel from neighboring states. Currently, visitors are supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days. That restriction has effectively eliminated tourism to Vermont. 
Counties in light blue have low enough infection rates that visitors to Vermont will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days. - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Counties in light blue have low enough infection rates that visitors to Vermont will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days.
Under new rules starting Monday, tourists and nonessential business travelers from low-risk areas of New England and upstate New York will no longer have to quarantine when visiting Vermont.

Low-risk counties are defined as those with fewer than 400 active cases per million. At the moment, 55 counties in the six states fit that bill. Pieciak said the threshold was chosen because it was approximately double the highest infection rates that counties in Vermont have experienced.

The counties are home to approximately 11 percent of the population of the six states, or 3.6 million people. No visitors from Canada are anticipated because the international border remains closed to nonessential travel.

Visitors will have to come in personal vehicles without stopping along the way. And once in Vermont, they will have to check for symptoms daily using an app called SARA Alert. The state has no way to check whether tourists are coming into the state from the approved counties, Scott acknowledged.

That burden will fall largely on the lodging industry, which will have to “keep an eye on who’s coming in” when they register, Secretary of Commerce Lindsay Kurrle said. Visitors will have to certify that they either met the 14-day quarantine or are coming from a county on the low-risk list, she said.

“Opening up to counties around our state and inviting folks here is going to require a little bit of trust and a lot of education,” Kurrle said.

She acknowledged that it was "not a perfect system" to rely on people's word but added, "We do trust that the lodging owners don’t want an outbreak any more than anybody does."

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'Call to Action' In Winooski As Outbreak Takes Shape

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 4:02 PM

COVID-19 testing in Winooski on Friday - ANDREA SUOZZO
  • Andrea Suozzo
  • COVID-19 testing in Winooski on Friday
The coronavirus outbreak in Winooski is confined to "one social network of families," Gov. Phil Scott said at a press briefing on Friday, but it could merit citywide restrictions if more infections are discovered.

Shortly before the governor spoke in Montpelier, a handful of interpreters and members of Vermont's immigrant communities showed up to a separate press conference outside of Winooski City Hall to ask city leaders and Vermont Department of Health officials to do more to support New Americans affected by the outbreak.

"One of the reasons why people are so infected may be because they don't have the information," said Dr. Virginie Diambou, a member of a multilingual task force that has been translating public health information into at least 10 languages. "They don't speak English, they speak their own languages, and they are being told there are no funds to be able to hire interpreters or translators."

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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Winooski Coronavirus Outbreak Widens With 34 New Cases

Posted By on Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 7:36 PM

Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in March - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in March
Updated at 9:38 p.m.

The recent cluster of COVID-19 cases in Winooski showed signs of a larger outbreak on Thursday, as health officials announced the biggest spike in new infections since the pandemic's April peak.

The Vermont Department of Health reported 36 new cases Thursday, with all but two of those new infections tied to Winooski. It's the sixth-largest single-day case total the state has announced since the first case was discovered in March.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine and city officials will hold a press conference at Winooski City Hall at 9:30 a.m. Friday morning to discuss the outbreak, shortly before Gov. Phil Scott is expected to allow some indoor dining to resume across the state.

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