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News roundup: Vt. health officials report yet another record high number of COVID hospitalizations

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

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Wednesday, Dec. 8.

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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 health officials report new record high for COVID hospitalizations

Hospitalizations from COVID hit another record high Wednesday.

Data from the Health Department shows 92 people are in the hospital with the virus, and 28 people are in intensive care.

The state also reported 404 new COVID cases, and six deaths. Some 425 Vermonters have now died from the virus.

The state's seven-day positivity rate is 4.9%.

- Brittany Patterson

High COVID hospitalizations leading to push for more ICU beds

Hospitals in Vermont are working to add intensive care capacity as they see the highest levels of COVID patients in the pandemic.

Several hospitals around the state are adding more ICU beds this week, according to state Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.

“In terms of ICU beds, one additional bed is available at Southwest Vermont Medical Center, with one more slated to be in operation soon. The University of Vermont Medical Center and Northwest Vermont Medical Center are slated to add five additional ICU beds each,” he said.

On Wednesday, 92 people were hospitalized with COVID, the highest level Vermont has seen in the pandemic. Case rates remain high as well, which could further stress the hospital system.

- Henry Epp

UVM Medical Center limits visitors due to COVID surge

The University of Vermont Medical Center is putting new limits on visitors in the wake of surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The Burlington Free Press reports the new rules limit patients to just two visitors per hospital stay, and requires visitors wear masks at all times.

Patients in the hospital's adult inpatient units are limited to just one visitor per day. No visitors are allowed if a patient tests positive for COVID.

The new measures also close all waiting rooms in favor of a large waiting area in the hospital's main pavilion.

- Matthew Smith

COVID vaccination rates rising among children

State officials say they've reached an important milestone with vaccination rates for younger Vermonters.

Based on the latest data, almost half of all children aged 5 to 11 have received at least their first COVID shot.

Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak says this marks a key milestone, because the infection rate within this age group is the highest in the state.

"We mentioned how important it is for them to get vaccinated -- they continue to be the highest demographic of cases in Vermont. But they continue to make good progress. Just over 47% of those aged 5 to 11 in Vermont have gotten their first shot of the vaccine," he said.

Pieciak says roughly 10% of all children in this age category have now received both COVID shots and that many more will become eligible in the coming weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

State officials announce free at-home COVID testing program

A new program will allow Vermonters who have commercial insurance to receive at-home COVID tests for free.

Residents will be able to pick up two test kits per week from local pharmacies, which will then bill insurance companies.

Gov. Phil Scott says he hopes to soon expand the program.

“We believe this will cover about 140,000 people,” he said. “And we're working to extend it beyond commercial insurance in hopes of covering most Vermonters."

Administration officials caution that the program will take some time to get up and running, but Vermonters can request reimbursement for tests purchased since Dec. 1.

- Henry Epp

COVID patients recovering in “sub-acute” care facilities

As Vermont sees its highest levels of COVID hospitalization in the pandemic, the state is relying on facilities other than hospitals to take patients who need "sub-acute" care.

These are patients who no longer need hospital-level care, but still need support as they recover from COVID. Most are sent to long-term care or rehab facilities.

Gov. Phil Scott says this clears hospital space during the current surge in cases.

"So we were able to free up beds in another area to allow for them to get better before they went home, but get them out of the hospital. So that's freed up capacity as well,” he said.

Administration officials say the state is adding 39 additional sub-acute beds in the coming weeks.

- Henry Epp

2. Gov. Scott says workforce crisis a more serious threat than COVID to state’s long-term economic future

Gov. Phil Scott says that he believes Vermont's workforce development crisis poses a more serious threat to the state's long-term economic future than the current one posed by COVID-19.

Scott says it's critical for lawmakers to help draft a strategy to deal with the growing shortage of skilled workers in critical jobs throughout the state.

"From a long-term perspective, I'm much more concerned about our workforce crisis than I am COVID crisis, so that's what our focus will be in the upcoming session,” Scott said. “It is getting worse, and that keeps me up at night."

Scott is hoping to use some new federal money to help finance a number of state workforce initiatives.

- Bob Kinzel

3. AG Donovan files brief to overturn bankruptcy order for Purdue Pharma family

The state of Vermont joined four others asking a federal district court to reverse a bankruptcy order protecting the family that owns OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma from future opioid-related lawsuits.

The Sackler family extracted billions of dollars from Purdue in the years leading up to the company's bankruptcy, much of which ended up in offshore accounts.

That's an abuse of the bankruptcy process intended to protect the Sacklers' wealth, according to a legal brief filed Monday by state Attorney General T.J. Donovan and others.

Vermont previously joined seven other states and Washington D.C. to appeal Purdue's bankruptcy order.

The plan requires the Sacklers to pay $4.3 billion over nine years to help curb the nationwide opioid crisis.

- Kevin Trevellyan

4. Vermont looking to use federal COVID aid to meet climate goals

Last week, Vermont adopted its first ever Climate Action Plan. The state's climate council is working now on recommendations for how Vermont could leverage federal COVID relief dollars to enact it.

The governor and Legislature have signaled support for using roughly $200 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds to finance climate solutions in Vermont.

The money has to be committed to projects by the end of 2024. And it comes with restrictions on how it can be spent. Namely: it has to go to programs that have an infrastructure focus and serve low-income Vermonters.

On Tuesday, members of the Scott administration said it's plausible the funds could go to programs that broaden access to electric vehicles and charging stations.

Council members also discussed a recommendation that the state dedicate a percentage of funds for programs that help traditionally underserved communities participate in climate solutions.

The council hopes to issue a formal set of recommendations ahead of the upcoming Legislative session.

- Abagael Giles

5. Vt. Legislature report says state should not allow “animal-share” agreements

A new report from the Vermont Legislature says Vermont should not allow farmers to slaughter animals on the farm, and then sell the meat under so-called "animal-share" agreements.

Any meat that’s sold in the state must be federally inspected, but a lot of Vermonters buy shares of a live animal.

Then, after a farmer processes the meat, it's distributed without going through the federal inspection.

Lawmakers were looking for a way to bring that practice above board, but the new report says Vermont’s whole federal inspection funding and licensing program could be jeopardized if animal-share agreements are codified in law.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

6. Burlington voters pass electric department bond, reject infrastructure bond

Voters in Burlington's special election Tuesday passed a bond to bolster the city's electric department, but rejected another bonding effort that would have addressed city infrastructure.

Voters passed a $20 million bond to pay for Burlington Electric Department grid upgrades, and put more money toward energy conservation incentives and subsidies for electric heat pumps, electric cars, and other electrified tools and transport.

But voters rejected the $40 million bond that would go toward city infrastructure, for projects like sewer lines, parks, and bike lanes, as well as repairs to Memorial Auditorium.

More than 70% of Burlington voters supported the energy bond, but the other bonding measure fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

- Matthew Smith

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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