News roundup: State planning to launch COVID rapid test home delivery pilot program
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Jan. 7.
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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron variant is now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and find the latest vaccination data online any time.
1. Vt. health officials report 1,917 new COVID cases Friday
The Vermont Health Department reported 1,917 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and no new deaths.
A total of 84 people are currently hospitalized in the state with the virus, with 14 of them in the ICU.
To date, 482 people have died from COVID-19 in Vermont.
- Lydia Brown
State launching rapid COVID test pilot program
State officials are testing a pilot program that aims to deliver 500,000 rapid COVID tests to homes across Vermont.
The program will help the state evaluate a broader model where residents order tests online for home delivery, according to a news release from the governor's office.
The program is similar to a separate federal effort that's slated to begin later this month. The two systems will exist in tandem, according to the state.
Gov. Phil Scott, in a statement, cautioned that test supplies may be limited and there may be unexpected challenges rolling out the program.
Additional details, including how to order tests, are expected next week.
- Kevin Trevellyan
Hospitals facing staffing issues due to omicron
Consistent staffing is one of the biggest challenges Vermont hospitals have faced in recent days.
That’s as many health care workers test positive for COVID or stay home because of potential exposure to the virus.
At the University of Vermont Medical Center, about 400 staff are out following health and safety protocols, according to President and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Stephen Leffler.
He says the hospital is seeing some of the highest numbers of COVID patients it’s had throughout the pandemic, but fewer people are in intensive care.
He thinks that’s because of the omicron variant.
“The trend so far seems like people are a little less sick. They need to be in the hospital not quite as long. Meaning we’re turning over a lot of people. We’re sending home a bunch of COVID patients every day. They’re just filled with new people who've gotten sick with COVID,” Leffler said.
At this point, the medical center is conducting some elective procedures.
But many are delayed due to staffing challenges and because the hospital created extra ICU beds.
- Lexi Krupp
Vermont reporting more COVID cases among fully-vaccinated people due to omicron variant
The state is reporting more cases of COVID-19 among fully-vaccinated people due to the highly infectious omicron variant.
Recent data from the state showed that COVID infections among vaccinated people increased by 119% over the last week.
Mike Pieciak is Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. He says the increase in breakthrough infections is not an indication that vaccines aren't working.
“The vaccines are still highly effective at keeping people out of the hospital, keeping some of the worst symptoms from occurring and keeping people alive,” he said.
According to state data, people who were not vaccinated were 22 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID, and 23 times more likely to die from the virus.
- Liam Elder-Connors
Burlington City Council transitioning to remote meetings
The Burlington City Council will meet remotely until further notice as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Since last summer, councilors have met in a hybrid format where the public was allowed to participate over Zoom or in person at City Hall.
As the omicron variant spreads across Vermont, the council is encouraging people to join over Zoom rather than meet in person.
Officials still plan to have a separate room for members of the public to sit and watch the remote meeting.
- Marlon Hyde
2. Burlington City Council president will not seek reelection in March
Burlington City Council President Max Tracy has said he will not seek reelection in March.
In an interview with VTDigger, Tracy said heightened work demands played a key role in making this decision.
Tracy, a union organizer, has served Ward 2 on the council since 2012. He's been council president for the past two years.
In 2021, Tracy bid in Burlington's mayoral election, but lost to incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger.
- Lydia Brown
3. Scott administration seeking funds to expand hospital bed capacity
As Vermont hospitals struggle to find space for patients, the Scott administration is asking lawmakers for $25 million to expand inpatient bed capacity.
The money would be used to cover staffing costs for about 140 unused beds at nursing homes and other residential facilities.
Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin says the administration also wants to boost ICU capacity.
“At this point, it does not look like it’s needed, but as you know, this virus has done weird things. So we don’t want to be caught short. So we’re being precautionary, but we think it’s an important endeavor,” he said.
The spending proposal would also provide emergency payments to mental health agencies and other health care providers that are at risk of becoming insolvent.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Scott administration to pitch tax cuts
State revenue surpluses and federal spending packages have boosted government coffers in Vermont.
And Gov. Phil Scott said during his State of the State address that he wants to use some of that money to go toward tax cuts.
“So I’ll put forward a balanced and progressive tax relief package, with a focus on those who need it – like retirees, middle-income families and young workers,” he said.
Scott said he’ll unveil details of the tax relief package during his budget address later this month.
But he said Wednesday that he’ll once again ask the Legislature to eliminate the income tax on military pensions.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have previously rejected that idea.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Scott administration proposing financial incentives to attract new workers
Gov. Phil Scott wants to use more financial incentives to convince out-of-state workers to move to Vermont.
During his State of the State address on Wednesday, Scott said Vermont can’t solve its labor force shortage through education and training alone.
“So I’ll again propose a comprehensive relocation package that makes the best use of marketing dollars to identify and directly reach people who have past ties to or current interest in Vermont,” he said.
The Scott administration recently commissioned a study that found previous relocation incentive programs have generated more than $15 million annually in the Vermont economy.
Scott is also proposing retention bonuses for existing state employees and health care workers.
- Peter Hirschfeld
State lawmakers considering Scott administration spending plan
House lawmakers have begun their review of a more than $200 million spending proposal submitted by Gov. Phil Scott this week.
Montpelier Rep. Mary Hooper, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, says the Legislature is prepared to allocate significant sums for Vermont’s COVID response.
But she says she’s leery of appropriating money for new programs outside the normal budgeting process.
“So if there are new proposals in the budget adjustment, we are going to take a deep look at them, and make sure that they fit with the priorities that Vermonters have expressed very clearly to us,” she said.
Scott is asking lawmakers for $80 million for housing, $30 million for workforce support, and $25 million to boost inpatient capacity at hospitals.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. Climate Council members testify to lawmakers about need for Clean Heat Standard
House lawmakers on Thursday heard testimony from members of the state's Climate Council about the need for a Clean Heat Standard.
The rule would make fossil fuel wholesalers gradually provide cleaner heat options to customers. The council says it's key to reaching the state's climate goals.
Council member Richard Cowart told lawmakers there should be incentives for large fuel providers to start with the 80% of renters in Vermont who are low-income.
Vermont must reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. By some estimates, nearly every home in the state will need its heat source upgraded.
- Abagael Giles
5. Leahy encourages prosecution of Capitol rioters
Sen. Patrick Leahy says it's critical to prosecute perpetrators of last year's Capitol insurrection to the full extent of the law to ensure that type of violence doesn't happen again.
Leahy says the effort to overturn the legitimate results of President Joe Biden's election represents one of the greatest threats to democracy in the history of this country.
"A real attempt, certainly since the Civil War, of people trying to destroy our Constitution, destroy our way of government – and if that happens we don't become any different from some of these dictatorships,” he said.
Leahy says he supports plans by a special congressional committee to find out what former President Donald Trump's role was in trying to overturn the lawful election results.
- Bob Kinzel
6. Disagreement brewing over state redistricting
There's a battle looming in the Vermont House over the appropriate size of dozens of House districts.
By a 4 to 3 vote, the state's Apportionment Board recommended that the House consist of 150 single-member districts.
Currently there are 62 single-member districts and 44 two-member districts.
House Government Operations Chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas says switching to only single-member districts could cause serious problems at the local level.
"You can't respect all of the town, city and county boundaries that the statutes ask to respect if you go with a strict adherence to single-member district plan,” she said.
Backers of the single district proposal argue it will be better for the democratic process because each member will represent a smaller number of constituents.
- Bob Kinzel
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.