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Friday, January 22, 2021

Vaccine Appointments for Those 75 and Older to Open Monday

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2021 at 3:19 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
Vermonters 75 and older are next in line to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and will be able to register for an appointment starting on Monday.

The state is nearing the end of its vaccination process for frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff. As of Thursday, 40,318 people had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 8,949 people had received the second and final dose.

Next in line are Vermonters aged 75 and up — a group that includes nearly 50,000 people — then those 70 and up, then 65 and up, followed by Vermonters with conditions that put them at high risk for complications from COVID-19.
That plan runs counter to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state's vaccine advisory panel, which recommended vaccinating essential workers, including teachers, in the next priority group. State officials have pointed to the high rate of death among older Vermonters. As of January 21, 161 of the 169 Vermonters who died with COVID-19 were over the age of 60.

"The older you are, the more likely you are to die if you get COVID. With our limited supply of vaccines ... we have a moral obligation to prioritize saving lives," Gov. Phil Scott said at press conference on Friday.

"If we were getting more doses, we'd be able to vaccinate a broader group. But we have to deal with reality," he said.
The event was held via video as the governor and other officials are in quarantine after a state contractor working at two recent press conferences tested positive for COVID-19. Scott tested negative for the virus on Wednesday and will be tested again this coming Tuesday — seven days after his most recent potential exposure to the infected person.

For the next phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the state will set up 54 inoculation sites in 39 towns. Those eligible to get the vaccine can sign up for an appointment either through the state's website or by telephone. Officials said they will release that phone number on Monday morning; the call center will have approximately 400 staffers.

Officials said they anticipate some bottlenecks at the beginning, but they are confident everyone eligible for a vaccination will be able to get an appointment.

"I want everyone to have realistic expectations — your appointment may not be immediate or on the day you would prefer," Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said.

But he said everyone 75 and older would be able to get an appointment within the five-week period the state has designated for that population group.

Those hoping to book an appointment shouldn't head to the state's website at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Smith warned — the booking system will go live sometime that morning, and he said officials plan to send out a press release announcing that launch.

People registering for an appointment will need to verify their age and their Vermont residency. And couples who are both 75 or older will need to register for separate appointments.

State officials said they're hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to increase the supply of vaccines being delivered to the state, and that they can speed up the rate at which they're able to offer vaccines to other portions of the population.

"We are poised to ramp this up if we are fortunate enough to have more vaccine," Smith said.

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State Rep to Introduce Bill That Would Nix Religious Vaccination Exemption

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2021 at 2:56 PM

Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Rep. George Till (D-Jericho)
Vermont Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) plans to introduce a bill next week that would prevent parents from opting their children out of mandatory school vaccinations for purely religious reasons, setting the stage for yet another showdown over public health and civil liberties — only this time, in the middle of a pandemic.

Till, a practicing physician, told Seven Days on Friday that he found it "disturbing" to see how many people "suddenly found religion" after Vermont became the first state in the nation to remove its "philosophical exemption" five years ago, a move he strongly supported.

A study published in late 2019 found that while the number of Vermont kindergarteners who avoided vaccinations for non-medical reasons dropped from 5.7 percent to 3.7 percent in the two years after the policy change, the rate of religious exemption claims jumped from 0.5 percent to 3.7 percent.

"The truth of it is that there are very few religions that actually have an objection to [vaccines]," Till said. "People were really, truthfully just misusing the religious exemption."

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Lawmakers May Roll Back Program That Credits Inmates for 'Good Time'

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2021 at 8:31 PM

File: Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • File: Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)
When JoAnn and Ned Winterbottom gave their blessing to a 2007 plea agreement involving Gerald Montgomery, they did so believing it would send him to prison for at least the next 43 years. So they were distraught to learn last year that the man who kidnapped, raped and killed their daughter is eligible for a new program that allows prisoners to shave years off their minimum sentence so long as they behave.

"When Montgomery ended Laura’s life, he forever changed my life, my husband’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s," JoAnn Winterbottom told the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, testifying alongside her husband, Ned. "We, in fact, are serving a relentlessly painful lifetime sentence. Allowing him to qualify for an earlier release is not acceptable to us, and it is certainly not in the interest or pursuit of fairness and accountability."

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Elderwood Cited for Poor Patient Care During COVID-19 Outbreak

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2021 at 2:39 PM

Elderwood at Burlington - DEREK BROUWER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • Elderwood at Burlington
Regulators have cited Elderwood at Burlington for serious lapses in patient care during a recent COVID-19 outbreak that has infected 127 of the nursing home's residents and employees.

The recent investigation, spurred by five anonymous complaints, did not find any shortcomings in infection control that may have contributed to viral spread. It confirmed instead that a staffing crisis led to dangerously diminished care.

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Scott's Executive Order to Update Act 250 Draws Fire

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2021 at 2:24 PM

  • Tim Newcomb
Gov. Phil Scott’s latest plan to update the state’s 50-year-old land-use law has quickly run into legislative and legal resistance.

Scott issued an executive order last week shifting power from the nine volunteer district commissions that administer Act 250’s development regulations to a single, professional statewide board.

“We can and must protect our environment and support regional economic development reliant on vibrant downtowns and village centers,” Scott said in a press release. “That’s our focus in this work, because we cannot achieve these goals with the outdated and cumbersome administrative structure we have today.”

Passed in 1970 in response to unchecked growth that followed completion of interstate highways, Act 250 established statewide standards even while setting up district commissions to retain local control. Today, critics contend that the decentralized model creates inconsistency in its administration and duplication of effort when local decisions on large projects are inevitably appealed.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Burlington Will Put Retail Cannabis Question on March Ballot

Posted By on Wed, Jan 20, 2021 at 12:22 AM

Marijuana products could be sold in Burlington - FILE: LUKE EASTMAN
  • File: Luke Eastman
  • Marijuana products could be sold in Burlington
Burlington voters will get the chance in March to consider whether the Queen City should allow retail cannabis sales when Vermont's legal adult-use market opens in 2022.

The council voted unanimously to place a question on the Town Meeting Day ballot that would permit marijuana sales within city limits. Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) recused himself from the vote.

Vermont's cannabis law requires municipalities to proactively opt-in to the marketplace through a public vote. Under the law, the state's existing medical marijuana dispensaries can obtain what are known as integrated licenses to manufacture and sell cannabis products to the public in May 2022. Other retail licensees can't open until October 2022.

Burlington's ballot item, however, wouldn't allow any marijuana businesses to open until October 2022.

"This is a modest proposal to try to level the playing field," Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) said. "We really wanted to try to be fair to all businesses and in particular, small businesses."

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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 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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Scott Signs Bill Enabling Mail-In Voting for Town Meeting Day

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 1:00 PM

Vermont voters at a polling location last year - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Vermont voters at a polling location last year
A bill that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law on Tuesday will enable Vermont municipalities and school districts to conduct mail-in Town Meeting Day votes this year. It also allows for votes to be delayed until later in the spring, when it might be safer to hold some form of in-person meetings.

"This means they can, if they choose, mail ballots to all registered voters in place of more traditional town meetings, or the typical in-person elections used by many cities and towns," Scott said at a press briefing.

The bill, H.48, seeks to keep residents safe during the coronavirus pandemic by offering flexibility ahead of Vermont's traditional March voting day. It will empower municipalities and school districts to send out ballots in a system similar to the one used during Vermont's first-ever mail-in election in November.

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Monday, January 18, 2021

Dieng Wants Voters to Weigh In on Burlington Police Staffing Levels

Posted By on Mon, Jan 18, 2021 at 8:23 PM

Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7)
Updated on January 19, 2021.

Burlington city councilors on Tuesday will consider putting a non-binding question about police staffing levels on the Town Meeting Day ballot.

Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) introduced the resolution, saying the council vote in June to dramatically cut the police force and invest in social services was a "knee-jerk reaction" to activists' demands. The question he's proposed would ask voters if the city should increase the department's authorized headcount from 74 officers to 84.

Non-binding means the council would not be required to adopt the change, even if a majority of voters approve it.

"The people being policed — none of them have been part of the conversation. It's only those who are vocal," said Dieng, who is running for mayor. "They speak up, and that's it. The council makes a decision. I want to hear from everyone."

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