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News roundup: State officials report Vt. COVID positivity rate continues to increase

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, the opening of the 2022 legislative session and more for Wednesday, Jan. 5.

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

1. Vt. health officials report increased COVID positivity rate, two more deaths

The Vermont Health Department reported 887 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and two new deaths.

Some 82 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, with 15 in the ICU.

The state's seven-day positivity rate increased again today to 12.6%.

- Lydia Brown

Vermont Department of Corrections reports four more incarcerated people tested positive for COVID

The Vermont Department of Corrections reports four people incarcerated at four different Vermont facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.

The cases were detected during intake quarantine at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, and Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

The person incarcerated at Southern State Correctional Facility was released prior to testing positive.

Statewide, there are currently five positive cases among incarcerated people and 37 positive cases among DOC staff.

- Lydia Brown

Vt. hospital officials say they’re very busy, but not at a breaking point

Some hospital officials in Vermont say they are very busy, but not at a breaking point.

At Rutland Regional Medical Center, the emergency department is busy.

The ICU is nearly full, and the hospital can’t discharge many of their patients, because of limited beds at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Still, they’ve admitted more COVID patients in weeks prior. And, as of now, elective surgery procedures are proceeding as planned.

Meg Oaks, senior director of quality and safety there, says they’ve been managing.

“It seems so far, like omicron is not causing an increase in hospitalizations that’s proportional to the number of cases,” Oaks said. “And I'm certainly hoping that that's true, because if it does, then that's going to be a very different situation for us and for the rest of the hospitals in Vermont as well.”

She says of all the variables at play, consistent staffing is the most worrisome.

- Lexi Krupp.

Quebec seeing COVID surge

Quebec hit a COVID case record on New Year’s Day, with more than 17,000 reported cases. And with nearly 200 new hospitalizations reported Tuesday, CBC Montreal reporter Kate McKenna toldVermont Editionthe province is now facing a hospital bed shortage.

“So what that will probably mean is more surgeries will be canceled, and more health care workers will be moved around, and it will create chaos within the hospital system – even further chaos than they’re already experiencing. I don’t mean to sound so grim, but things aren’t really great here right now,” she said.

Rural communities are facing the most pressure, as already-limited resources are further strained by soaring cases.

Quebec is taking measures to slow the spread of the virus, including retail store closures, gathering size limitations and a newly imposed 10 p.m. curfew.

- Jane Lindholm

State health commissioner says COVID tests are more readily available

Vermont’s top public health official says demand for both PCR and rapid at-home antigen COVID tests exceeded the state’s supply over the holiday season.

Dr. Mark Levine toldVermont Editionon Tuesday that Vermonters should now be able to access PCR tests much more easily. But the current high rate of infection could still cause issues.

“We just learned today from the CDC that omicron now makes up over 82% of the virus in the New England region,” Levine said. “So I suspect there will be some current stresses on the system related to, perhaps, New Years and then secondary transmissions to people after New Years.”

Levine also said the state is working to provide free rapid tests to families with young kids in child care and will release more detailed information within the week.

- Jane Lindholm

2. Lawmakers tackle COVID precautions on first day of legislative session

Vermont lawmakers yesterday gaveled in the 2022 legislative session. Their first day was dominated by resolutions that will allow them to conduct business remotely.

The omicron variant is circulating widely in Vermont. Case counts are at their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.

And legislative business on Tuesday reflected the moment.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer read from a resolution that requires legislators to wear face masks in the statehouse.

“If a senator is unable or refuses to wear a facial covering the senator shall be denied physical access to the Senate chamber and Senate committee rooms, but shall be provided with alternative electronic means to fulfill the senator’s duties,” he said.

Most lawmakers won’t have to worry about statehouse masking or vaccination policies for a while.

Lawmakers aren't set to physically return to Montpelier until at least Jan. 18.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont House kicks off session remotely

In the first roll call vote of the new session, the Vermont House has agreed to meet remotely for the next two weeks because of growing concerns about the omicron variant.

A number of House members also expressed a desire to keep this remote session as short as possible.

Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue said lawmakers should return to the statehouse on Jan. 18 unless there are compelling health and safety reasons not to meet in person.

"Not until town meetings, not for a full month, but for the two-week time lag to see what the actual evidence tells us about any changes in the risk profile for being here in person,” she says.

In the next 10 days, the Joint Rules Committee plans to develop specific criteria to determine when health officials feel it's safe for lawmakers to return to the Statehouse.

- Bob Kinzel

Vt. House speaker outlines legislative priorities

House Speaker Jill Krowinski says she's confident that lawmakers can meet the major challenges facing the state while also dealing with a sharp increase in COVID cases.

Speaking to her colleagues in the House chamber Tuesday, Krowinski identified child care, workforce development, climate change, affordable housing and a constitutional amendment that guarantees reproductive rights as some of her top priorities for the new session.

"Unfortunately with COVID case counts at record highs, we are beginning our legislative work remotely, which I know is disappointing to many. However, that will not deter us from doing important work that Vermonters in all 14 counties are counting on in order to recover from this pandemic,” she said.

Krowinski also called on the House to support efforts to provide greater equity in the state's education system.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Education leaders urge Vt. Legislature to boost teacher recruitment

The head of Vermont’s teachers’ union is asking lawmakers to do more to recruit and retain licensed educators.

Vermont-NEA Executive Director Jeff Fannon says some schools have seen an exodus of teachers over the course of the pandemic.

“These shortages are very real, and what we’re hearing is that it's leading to larger class sizes,” Fannon said. “These shortages are also driving educators out of the classroom because they are burning out – at an alarming rate, frankly.”

Fannon told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday that the Legislature could address the teacher shortage by forgiving more student loans and encouraging paraeducators to become teachers.

Fannon said he also wants lawmakers to consider retention bonuses for existing teachers.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Some superintendents hoping Legislature will institute mask mandate in public schools

Some superintendents are hoping the Legislature will institute a mask mandate in public schools.

It's a move Gov. Phil Scott has so far rejected.

Speaking to lawmakers on Tuesday, Montpelier-Roxbury Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said some school boards and administrators are struggling with owning responsibility for COVID mitigation protocols.

“Anything that has to do with a health response, use the science and decide what is best for the state, for Vermonters,” Bonesteel said. “Laypeople shouldn’t be making those decisions.”

Bonesteel says she’s come under fire from some parents who think COVID protocols are too restrictive, and others who think they’re too lax.

Legislative leaders have indicated they’re considering a bill that would require mask wearing in all indoor public spaces in Vermont, including schools.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Education secretary says schools preemptively shutting down due to COVID will not receive waivers

Vermont schools that fail to meet the mandatory number of in-person classroom days due to COVID cases can count on getting waivers.

But Education Secretary Dan French says he won’t be so forgiving of schools that shut down preemptively to avoid COVID outbreaks.

“I’ve had several school leaders and superintendents reach out to me and say, ‘Can we close school in advance of what we anticipate to be problems?’ And those kinds of issues, from my perspective, are not legitimate waiver issues,” French said.

French told lawmakers Tuesday that schools need to balance the physical threat of COVID against the mental health impacts of remote learning.

K-12 schools in Vermont are required to hold at least 175 in-person student days, unless they get a waiver.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Everyone Eats food assistance program extended through April 1

The federally-funded food assistance program Vermont Everyone Eats has been extended through April 1.

The program started during the pandemic to help those living with food insecurity, as well as supply income to local restaurants and farms.

According to its website, Vermont Everyone Eats covers all 14 of the state’s counties and produces 30,000 meals each week.

- Lydia Brown

4. Unusually warm December marks end of 2021

Vermont's most populous city just recorded its eighth-warmest December on record, according to the National Weather Service.

Burlington was more than 3.5 degrees warmer than usual last month, compared to averages dating back to 1884. Snowfall was also below average.

Matthew Clay with the National Weather Service says the Queen City’s December was representative of notably mild weather around Vermont.

“Three degrees here or there doesn’t sound too much probably for the average person, but when you actually look at the grand scheme of things – comparing it to other months – it actually is definitely on the higher side,” he said.

Clay says Vermonters should get used to warmer Decembers. Burlington’s 10 mildest have happened in the last two decades.

But that doesn’t mean the whole season will be a bust. Clay says there’s no correlation between warm Decembers and the rest of winter.

- Kevin Trevellyan

5. Burlington health care startup will expand with $6M in investments

A Burlington health care startup says it will hire more workers in Vermont, after receiving over $6 million in investments in recent months.

The company ThinkMD makes an app that allows health care workers to assess the symptoms of patients, and determine what care they need. It's primarily used in lower- and middle-income countries.

CEO Chris Powell says the new funding will help the company assess more patients around the globe, which could save lives.

"Globally the challenge is there are still over 5 million children that die each year of preventable diseases, such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, things that I think in the US health care market we take pretty for granted relative to care,” Powell said.

ThinkMD currently employs about a dozen people in Vermont. Powell says he plans to add several more positions in the state in 2022.

- Henry Epp

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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