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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont Coronavirus Updates For Thursday, April 23

Flynn Theater marquee
Abagael Giles
In Burlington, The Flynn Theater offered passersby a message of hope.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Thursday, April 23.


Self-employed Vermonters could bring total unemployment claims up to 125,000

There are strong indications that Vermont's unemployment rate could surpass 35% when the full impact of the coronavirus hits the economy.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington estimates that at least 125,000 Vermonters will apply for benefits once self-employed workers file their claims.

As of Thursday, self-employed workers and contractors can apply for unemployment benefits in Vermont. The new system was set up under a provision in federal coronavirus relief legislation.

Amy Johnson-Cook, an independent software consultant, said so far the new system seems to be working. She said on Thursday she applied for benefits and immediately got emails confirming her request.

"The first one telling me how much I was eligible for, and then reminders of like, here's other weeks you could file, telling me I could file back to my original week in March... It was very fast," Johnson-Cook said.

She said she hasn't gotten any of the money yet, but expects to in the next couple of days. 

Harrington says that once all such claims are processed, the state will likely see a spike in its unemployment figures. But Harrington doesn't think the rate will remain at record levels for long.

"This is potentially a short term extreme high unemployment rate — I don't think we'll go back to pre-COVID-19 levels for some time, but you know, once things subside and businesses are able to open back up, that number should drop significantly," Harrington said.

The Scott administration is slowly reopening parts of Vermont's economy as the number of new cases continues to drop.

- Bob Kinzel and Liam Elder-Connors

Legislature discusses plans to bail out the Vermont State Colleges System

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding has withdrawn a controversial recommendation to close Northern Vermont University's campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, as well as the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph.

The reaction to Spaulding's plan was broad and swift. And now the Legislature is discussing plans to bail the state college system out of its immediate budget shortfal. 

In particular, some Vermont legislators would like to see the state use some of the new federal stimulus money as a short term solution for the financial crisis at the Vermont State Colleges.

The state received just over a billion dollars and the money needs to be pend on coronavirus-related expenses. 

Washington County Senator Anthony Pollina is a graduate of Johnson State College and a long time supporter of the State College System. He is also the lead sponsor of a bill that would provide free tuition for Vermonters attending the state colleges.

"Some added costs for the state college system does relate to COVID-19 in terms of the amount of money they've had to return to students and the kind of burden that's put on colleges in the short term, so we could look into using that money to get us out of the current hole," Pollina said.

Pollina said the state also needs to make a long term commitment to the future of the state college system because it's an essential part of the Vermont economy.

But, Spaulding said, the system will also still need to adjust to changing college demographics.

"Over 30% of our student body in higher education on a national level are over 30 years old. Those kind of big changes are with us forever," Spaulding said. "We do need to look seriously at a campus configuration, but do it in a thoughtful process." 

More from VPR: 'Heart And Soul Of This Community:' Johnson Rallies To Save Its College Campus

The Vermont Senate has indicated its support for tens of millions of dollars in additional funds for the state college system. 

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said the Legislature needs to look at the future of state-supported higher education in Vermont, now that the state colleges have for now shelved a plan to shutter three campuses.

Ashe said he's pleased that Spaulding stepped back from his proposal to close the Johnson and Lyndon campuses of Northern Vermont University and the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. 

"But we have to take a broader view when we are thinking about a campus closure than just the particular mindset of the chancellor and board of trustees," Ashe said. "The impact goes beyond, to access to higher education on a geographic basis, but also speaks to the economic wellbeing of entire communities." 

Ashe said the legislative review should also include the University of Vermont. And he said lawmakers are ready to approve more funds to ensure the state college campuses are open in the fall.

The senators said they'd look to the $1.25 billion coming to Vermont in federal COVID-19 relief funds as a source for the state college aid. 

Spaulding said the colleges need $25 million to shore up their finances. Ashe said he's not sure how much money the Legislature will put forward, but he said it will come up with enough funds to keep the campuses open while looking at the entire state college system.

Spaulding said all state college campuses will open back up in the fall — unless COVID-19 causes further disruptions to in-person learning. 

Amy Kolb Noyes, Bob Kinzel and John Dillon

More from VPR: Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Withdraws Plan To Close Three Campuses

Northwestern Medical Center eyes a 15% rate increase

Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans said it needs an almost 15% rate increase to steady its finances. 

The hospital said the COVID-19 pandemic caused a nearly $10 million revenue shortfall in April.

Jonathan Billings is vice president of community relations for the hospital. "This rate increase stems from financial conditions that existed before COVID-19 hit our communities, and yet COVID-19 adds to the financial challenges that every hospital in the nation is facing." 

Hospital officials will ask the Green Mountain Care Board for the rate increase next week.

Howard Weiss-Tisman

Inmates at some Vermont facilities lack access to mental health services

The Department of Corrections confirmed today that inmates at some facilities don't have access to mental health services. 

Chris Burnor, an inmate incarcerated at Northwest Correctional Facility told VPR his weekly visits with mental health professionals ended when the outbreak of COVID-19 began inside that prison.

"After everything else has happened in my life, mental health has always been there," Burnor said. "Now the most crazy thing that's ever happened [has happened] in my life, and mental health is not there for us. I just don't understand."

Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker said, "I was concerned when I heard about this, and we're addressing it now." 

Baker said he recently learned that mental health services had stopped in some state prisons and is looking into it." 

Emily Corwin

More from VPR's people-powered podcast, Brave Little State: How Are Vermont's Prisons Handling COVID-19?

Vermont Department of Corrections weighs sentence reduction for cooking staff

Vermont law allows the Department of Corrections to reward a heroic act with a 30-day sentence reduction. Some inmates tasked with cooking for sick prisoners said they should receive this reward. 

Eric Williams is locked up at the prison in St. Johnsbury. He's in charge of baking for his fellow inmates there — many of whom have COVID-19 and are in medical isolation. He said he and his 24 fellow kitchen workers deserve recognition.

"If it wasn't for us guys that were here helping them out, I don't believe these guys who are infected would be getting what they need," Williams said.

Williams said the kitchen crew's proximity to the infected inmates puts their health at risk.

When asked about issuing "good time" to these inmates, Commissioner Jim Baker said he would bring the issue to the leadership team but added that there were "no guarantees."

Emily Corwin

More from VPR: Defendents Ask Court To Weigh COVID-19 Vulnerability While Setting Bail

Vermont National Guard, Foodbank distribute Meals Ready-To-Eat

The Vermont National Guard is distributing Meals Ready-To-Eat to residents. On Wednesday, the Guard joined Vermont Foodbank to hand out almost 60,000 MREs at the Franklin County Airport in Swanton. 

The MREs were secured through FEMA. Despite a late spring snowstorm, more than 600 cars lined up for the MREs. Sgt. Nicole Hill was one of the guard members distributing food.

"Everyone's super appreciative, they're really happy and thankful that we're doing this for them," Hill said. "A lot of people are also picking up food for their neighbors or elderly people in their neighborhood that they know can't travel or shouldn't be traveling. We've had a couple other guys that have come through that didn't even come to pick up food; they just came to drop off a couple Boxes o' Joe for us, which is pretty cool." 

The National Guard will distribute MREs on Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, and next week at state airports in North Springfield, Bennington and Newport. 

Any resident can pick up meals, and are welcome to pick them up for neighbors or friends who cannot do so themselves. Families receive one week's worth of food. 

Findthe full story and photo essay, here.

Abagael Giles

Living conditions of migrant farmworkers put them at heightened risk for COVID-19

An expert on migrant farm labor in Vermont said the 2,000 undocumented workers on the state's dairy farms are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

Dan Baker is a UVM professor who has surveyed workers about their living conditions and wages. He told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that the workers' crowded housing poses a challenge if — and likely when — the disease spreads to this group.

"Right now, I'm not aware of any confirmed cases of coronavirus on dairy farms. I have heard a couple of issues. But if this did move to dairy farms, you could have a real problem with spreading that disease in these houses, and the options are quite limited," Baker warned.

Baker cites his 2019 survey of migrant dairy workers that found they usually live four workers to a house. He said about a third of them report sharing a bedroom with at least one other person. 

- John Dillon

Did you catch today's episode of Vermont Edition? You can listen here to a conversation with experts about COVID-19 and what it means for immigration.

As Ramadan begins, Vermont Muslims face challenges in worshipping apart

This Thursday marks the eve of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar.

Muslims around the world usually commemorate with fasting during the day and social gatherings at night, but COVID-19 has changed some of that.

Islam Hassan is the Imam for the Islamic Society of Vermont.

"This year is totally different in many people's lives," Hassan said. "Not only is there no prayer at the mosque, but also, there are no social gatherings outside the mosque. So we cannot even invite people over, we cannot go over to other people's houses."

Hassan said the Islamic Society of Vermont had just moved into its new building in South Burlington when Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency. The mosque held its first and only service there on March 6. The next one had been planned for March 13 — the same day Scott made his announcement.

- Elodie Reed

Vermont Senate aims to boost essential workers' pay

The Vermont Senate is working on legislation aimed at boosting pay for essential workers in the COVID-19 crisis. 

Caledonia Senator Jane Kitchell chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. She said the bill is aimed at helping grocery store employees, nursing home workers and others whose jobs are vital during the pandemic. 

"So there are very obvious sites of employment that we recognize where people who continue to work, oftentimes not in the highest-paid jobs, are putting themselves at risk, as well as providing essential services to others," Kitchell said.

Kitchell said the program would cost about $90 million and would cover about 33,000 workers. The Legislature hopes to tap federal funds to pay for it. But Gov. Phil Scott said he's concerned about the overall cost and about the competing needs that exist for federal aid.

John Dillon

Vermont scores $700,000 for Cultural Relief Grant Fund

Federal funds are now available to help Vermont non-profit theaters, libraries, museums, galleries and other cultural organizations weather the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Cultural Relief Grant Fund is administered by the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities Council. 

In total, about $700,000 is available. 

Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, expects a strong demand for the funds.

"The grant program was just announced and we already have 21 applications either submitted or in progress," Mittelman said.

Application forms are available on both councils' websites.

Additionally, there is a new round of relief funding available for individual Vermont artists. 

Mittelman said the Rapid Response Artist Relief Program has just reopened, "and we already have 131 new applications or applications in progress. Those are grants of up to $500, to give immediate aid to artists who are experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic." 

More information and an application form can be found on the Vermont Arts Council's website

Betty Smith

More from VPR: Audio Postcard: Vermont Luthier Live-Builds Violin To Help Struggling Vermont Artists.

Vermont House passes historic resolution to allow remote voting

The Vermont House voted on a number of bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday.

The bills were all non-controversial and passed overwhelmingly. What is unusual is that none of the members were physically present at the Statehouse. 

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson wielded the virtual gavel to open the session.

"Welcome everybody, to our first remote session as a House in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis," Johnson said Thursday. "This is an official session of the Vermont House of Representatives. It is being livestreamed and recorded."

The first vote was on a resolution to allow the remote voting. A second measure lets people execute wills without having witnesses and a notary in the same physical location.

Another bill allows the Labor Department to access income data from the Tax Department so that self-employed people can receive unemployment benefits.

John Dillon

Commissioner of Labor: unemployment could reach 35% with self-employed claims

The number of Vermonters applying for unemployment benefits declined last week but state officials are bracing for a major increase in the coming week. 

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said roughly 7,000 workers filed claims last week — compared to 13,000 the week before. 

More from VPR: 'I Ran Out Of Money At The Grocery Store:' A Tough Month For Laid Off Vermonters

This brings the total number of claims in the last five weeks to roughly 88,000. 

But Harrington said these figures don't include self-employed people and he thinks Vermont's unemployment rate could hit 35% when these claims are factored in.

"It's about a third of our workforce, roughly," Harrington said. "I think it's the one caveat and it remains to be seen exactly how long it will last." 

Harrington said his department as more than tripled staff at its call center to help facilitate new claims.

- Bob Kinzel

Burlington schools distribute books along with meals

School meal distribution sites in Burlington are now offering up food for the brain, as well as the body. 

Thanks to a partnership with Fletcher Free Library, students can now have a book with their meal. 

Burlington School District meal sites are providing free breakfasts and lunches throughout the week to students under 19. 

Weather permitting, the library will visit each meal site once a week, giving away books for a variety of ages.

Amy Kolb Noyes

Affordable housing groups call for $106 million to house low-income Vermonters

Affordable housing groups are asking the state for about $106 million to help low-income residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The majority of the funds the organizations are requesting would be aimed at keeping people housed. Chris Donnelly with the Champlain Housing Trust, said the state currently has about 1,600 homeless people temporarily sheltered in motels. 

"When that 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order is lifted, I think we risk potentially another outbreak of the coronavirus if we don't have a safe place for people to be in," Donnelly said.

Sonnelly said the money could be used to buy property to house people and fund a rental assistance program.

Nancy Owens, president of Housing Vermont, said the majority of the $106 million would fund initiatives to provide longer term housing for those individuals who are currently homeless. 

"Purchasing vacant motels or old nursing homes, or residential care homes that are no longer operational — places that are empty and [where] we can move people in," Owens said, by way of example.

The groups are also proposing the state create a rental assistance program for low-income Vermonters.

Liam Elder-Connors

State officials say they will not selectively reopen individual counties

State officials said they're not planning to selectively reopen individual counties based on the level of COVID-19 activity. 

There are only 23 reported cases of COVID-19 in the three counties that make up the Northeast Kingdom. But Gov. Phil Scott said only opening up certain areas of the state might encourage people to flock to those places. 

"That would just create another hot spot, and that's what we're trying to prevent. Our preference is to do this on a statewide basis," Scott said. 

Scott allowed some construction and landscape businesses to resume operations on Monday and said he'll continue to slowly allow business to reopen based on data from public health experts. 

Liam Elder-Connors

Help shape VPR's coronavirus reporting

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