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News roundup: Vt. Dept. of Health reports COVID hospitalizations remain near an all-time high

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

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Wednesday, Nov. 24.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta variant is now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. Vermont Dept. of Health reports COVID hospitalizations remain near an all-time high

Vermont's COVID-related hospitalizations ticked down slightly, but remained near all-time highs Wednesday, according to the latest from the health department.

Sixty-four people are currently hospitalized with the virus, down slightly from Tuesday's record high of 68.

Seventeen people are in Vermont ICUs.

State health officials reported a total of 295 new COVID infections. The seven-day positivity rate dropped slightly to 3.8%.

To date, 82% of Vermonters 5 and older have gotten at least one vaccine dose, including 34% of 5-to-11-year-olds.

- Matthew Smith

State health officials expect current COVID-19 surge will continue through the end of the year

State health officials expect the current surge in COVID-19 cases will continue through the rest of this year.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says 70% of all new cases involve people who haven't been vaccinated. Vermont still has roughly 100,000 people in this category.

"So there still are plenty of fresh, uninfected people who have never been vaccinated that this virus can still find," Levine said. "And it is very adept at finding them — we know that for a fact."

Levine says over 150,000 Vermonters have gotten a COVID-19 booster in the last few weeks, including 60% of all people over 65.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont ramps up COVID-19 testing infrastructure ahead of the holidays

The Vermont Department of Health is ramping up COVID-19 testing infrastructure in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says the state opened up an additional 1,700 tests across the state for Wednesday.

“If you get tested on Wednesday, our goal is to get your results before Thanksgiving," Smith said.

Smith says the state is using a newly available technology, called LAMP testing, to process test results more quickly.

Public health experts say getting a COVID-19 test before indoor gatherings can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

Read/hear the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont leads the nation in percentage of 5- to 11-year-olds who have received one vaccine dose

Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of 5- to 11-year-old children who’ve received at least one dose of the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine.

But Gov. Phil Scott says he’s worried about slow rate of uptake for vaccine registrations in that age group.

"Although we lead the nation in the number of 5- to 11-year-olds receiving vaccinations, we knew this was going to be a difficult category," he said.

To date, 30% of 5- to 11-year-olds in Vermont have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

But registration for appointments has dropped dramatically over the past two weeks.

Scott says he thinks many parents want to see how other children fare after being vaccinated before signing their own kids up for the shot.

- Peter Hirschfeld

One more staffer at Northern State Correctional Facility has tested positive for COVID-19

One additional staffer at a state prison experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak has tested positive for the virus. That's according to the Vermont Department of Corrections.

To date, 32 cases have been detected at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport since Nov. 10. Of those, 24 are among the incarcerated population and eight are among prison staff.

DOC Chief of Operations Alan Cormier says it's difficult to know exactly how the outbreak started.

"We haven't actually pinpointed that it was a staff member. We say it's coming in from the outside but we've caught a number of cases coming into intake quarantine," Cormier said. "So from those cases, new arrests and new lodgings are coming in."

The entire facility was tested Monday. Cormier says he expects the results to be available Wednesday.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Vermont prepares to administer booster shots in state prisons

The Vermont Department of Corrections is preparing to roll out COVID-19 booster shots to the state's incarcerated population.

To date, 71% of the 1,300 or so people held in Vermont prisons are vaccinated. There are currently 23 cases of COVID-19 among the state's incarcerated population, according to DOC data.

Alan Cormier, chief of operations for DOC, says some booster shots have gone out at the prisons in St. Johnsbury and South Burlington. He says the other four facilities will have access to shots this week.

"The entire population is currently eligible," he said.

Cormier says the incarcerated population will be notified about booster shot clinics through their computer tablets.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Flu shot uptake is down 25% from last year

The Vermont Department of Health is reporting the first cases of influenza in the state. And officials say this could be a tough flu season because fewer Vermonters have been vaccinated this year.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says flu vaccination rates are running roughly 25% lower this year compared to last year. He's urging Vermonters to get a flu shot as soon as possible.

"We're already seeing cases of Flu in Vermont — not a lot but we have already seen some — so it seems like unlike last year, we will have a flu season. We are well behind last year's record-setting uptake of flu vaccinations."

Levine says flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time.

- Bob Kinzel

2. Vermont to add 10 additional ICU beds, boosting statewide capacity by about 10%

Vermont’s strained hospital system is getting an additional 10 intensive care beds.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says three hospitals in Vermont are working to get more ICU beds online.

“We are supporting their efforts by providing financial assistance to help staff additional ICU beds at Central Vermont Medical Center, Northwestern Medical Center and Southwestern Medical Center," Smith said.

The additional beds represent about a 10% increase in overall ICU capacity in the state.

Demand for ICU beds has increased in recent months, due to both the delta surge and an increase in non-COVID-related health conditions.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Vermont Senate calls on Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency due to COVID-19 case counts

The Vermont Senate on Monday passed a non-binding resolution that calls on Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency in Vermont due to high COVID-19 case counts.

At his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Scott fired back by saying that Vermont has some of the lowest hospitalization rates in the nation, as well as one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates.

“With all that data, 17 senators think we should go back to mandates that almost no other states have in place," Scott said. "So to be clear, I’m not willing to move us backwards.”

The Senate resolution also called on Scott to increase COVID-19 testing capacity and boost support for public schools.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say Scott should at minimum institute a statewide mask mandate.

He said his office has a team of experts guiding his administration’s COVID-19 response.

“I don’t think the Legislature has as many of those experts advising them as I do," Scott said. "But I’m very confident in my team and the approach they’ve taken and will continue to do what we think is best for Vermont.”

House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint have both called on the governor to institute a statewide mask mandate.

Some lawmakers want to pass statewide masking legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The governor signed legislation that allows municipalities to enact their own local mask mandates.

But Scott said he doesn’t think towns and cities should exercise their new power.

“As you’ve heard me say repeatedly, masking when inside in public spaces is a good idea right now because masks work," he said. "But at this point in the pandemic, mandates won’t. And I think they’ll be divisive and counterproductive.”

Scott said he signed the bill as a compromise measure with Democratic lawmakers.

He said support for the bill from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns also led him to sign the legislation.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. CDC data shows Vermont had the highest increase in opioid overdose deaths of any state in the nation during the pandemic

Recovery advocates say more addiction treatment centers, more funding and more innovation will be needed for Vermont to turn around a recent spike in opioid overdose deaths.

According to the CDC, Vermont had the highest in the nation increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic.

Tonya Wright works at Rutland’s Turning Point Center, which provides recovery support services.  She says it's clear the status quo isn't working.

"If we're going to make an impact on this, then we need to be brave and innovative and try some crazy things to to fight this," she said. "It's important, all these people that are dying. People are dying unnecessarily."

Wright says prevention programs need to begin with children. She'd like to see safe injection sites and drugs that can reverse overdoses — like Narcan — made more available.

- Nina Keck

5. Hartford elementary schools consider a shorter school day due to pandemic-induced staffing shortage

The school day may get shorter for elementary school students in Hartford.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are dealing with a staffing shortage as well as an increase in aggressive and violent behavior from students, The Valley News reports.

In an effort to provide relief to students and staff, teachers say they want a reduction in school hours, more substitutes and paraeducators and a delay in the implementation of new curriculum.

The school board held a meeting Tuesday evening to discuss changing the length of the school day.

- Anna Van Dine

Abagael Giles compiled and edited this post.

6. Brattleboro becomes first Vermont town to adopt local mask mandate

Brattleboro became the first Vermont town to adopt local mask requirements Tuesday night, just one day after the governor signed a bill that lawmakers passed Monday in a special session allowing such local mandates.

VT Digger reports the Brattleboro Selectboard passed the ordinance requiring both staff and customers to wear masks when inside city businesses.

The Selectboard had passed a local mask mandate in August, but Gov. Phil Scott rejected that decision, insisting only the governor could impose such a mandate.

Scott's signing of the new law Tuesday opened the door to the new mandate in Brattleboro, while other towns — including Burlington, Bennington, Montpelier and Waterbury — mull their own local mask rules.

Vermont's new law requires any local mask mandate be reviewed each month, and must sunset by the end of April 2022.

Burlington's mayor is proposing an indoor mask mandate

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is proposing an indoor mask mandate for the state's largest city — but says that businesses that require COVID vaccines for staff and customers should be exempt from the rule.

Weinberger's proposal, released Tuesday, comes a day after Vermont lawmakers passed a bill to allowed municipalities to enact their own mask orders.

The mandate in Burlington would not apply to places of worship or vaccinated workers who don't interact with the public, according to a press release.

The mandate would also need to be renewed every 30 days and couldn't last beyond April 30 — a requirement of the bill passed by state lawmakers.

The city council, which needs to approve the new ordinance, will take up the measure during a special meeting Dec. 1st.

- Liam Elder-Connors

7. New England electricity prices may spike amid rising fossil fuel demand

Surging demand for fossil fuels has sent home heating prices soaring in Vermont this winter, and energy experts say the ongoing energy crunch could eventually see electricity prices rise across New England.

Vermont’s power grid uses little in the way of fossil fuels to generate electricity, but the state’s grid is deeply connected to the rest of New England.

Seth Blumsack, director of the Center for Energy Law and Policy at Penn State University, says that connectedness could eventually affect Vermont rate payers.

"While Vermont itself uses almost no natural gas for electricity — so it doesn’t produce very much electricity at all with natural gas or other fossil fuels — the rest of the New England grid does," he said. "And so rising natural gas prices are going to increase the cost of generating electricity in the entire New England grid, which may result in higher costs for some Vermonters."

The global energy crunch is being felt most acutely by Vermonters heating their homes with fuel oil or propane — which energy experts say have seen prices spike by as much as 50%.

- Matthew Smith

Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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