News roundup: Vermont's COVID test delivery system is online
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.
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1. Vermont’s free rapid COVID test delivery system is online
Wednesday marks the first day Vermonters can sign up to get free rapid COVID tests delivered to their homes through a new state website.
Some 250,000 testing kits will be available.
Gov. Phil Scott discussed the program in his weekly press conference.
“Households will be able to request no more than two kits, which is four tests. And we fully expect them to go quickly,” he said.
Scott said the program does not replace President Biden’s plan to provide rapid tests later this month. And it’s in addition to the state’s efforts to supply schools and child care centers with rapid tests.
- Lexi Krupp
Health commissioner: New public school COVID procedures are “more comprehensive”
The state is changing its guidance around testing and contact tracing for COVID cases in schools.
The new guidelines say any student in a class with someone who tested positive is now considered a close contact, meaning school nurses will no longer have to act as contact tracers.
Instead, families will be notified anytime another student in their child’s class tests positive.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine spoke about the change at the governor’s weekly press conference.
“This is a more conservative approach that is faster and more comprehensive,” he said.
Levine says schools will provide families with rapid tests for both unvaccinated and vaccinated students.
The state also announced they no longer recommend PCR surveillance testing for students and staff. That’s because the omicron variant is thought to have spread more quickly, and PCR tests results take too long to be useful in a school setting.
- Lexi Krupp
State officials encourage Vermonters to use high quality masks to protect against the omicron variant.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says he doesn't believe that a single-ply cloth mask, by itself, offers sufficient protection against omicron for most people.
He says instead Vermonters should reach for KN-95 or N-95 masks if they can.
"If you don't or can't get that type of mask you can also layer a disposable surgical mask under a cloth mask to increase effectiveness. Just please don't rely on a single ply cloth mask,” he said.
Levine says the administration is working to make high quality masks available throughout Vermont.
- Bob Kinzel
Gov. Scott still opposes mask mandate
Governor Phil Scott says the record number of COVID cases in Vermont over the past few weeks has not changed his opposition to a statewide vaccination mandate.
Scott says he strongly encourages all Vermonters to be fully vaccinated and to a booster shot.
But he doesn't think a mandate would have been more effective in reducing the number of cases. Scott says some people would have flatly refused to get vaccinated.
"There are going to be breakthrough cases regardless of how many people get vaccinated, so it's just a reality of the pandemic and the virus and the nature of the virus,” he said.
Nearly 60% of Vermonters over 18 have been fully vaccinated, including a booster dose.
- Bob Kinzel
State officials recommend rapid COVID testing
With omicron surging, state officials are now urging Vermonters to reach first for a rapid antigen test in most situations.
Previously, the Scott administration had been encouraging residents to get a PCR test. Results can take several days to come in.
But state health officials are finding that the omicron variant is more contagious than the Delta variant, and the incubation period appears to be shorter. Both heighten the need for faster test results.
Currently, rapid tests are in short supply in some parts of Vermont, but Gov. Phil Scott says he's optimistic that the state will be able to keep pace with demand.
"We are confident over the coming weeks that we have enough. And we've been managing our supply and we think we have enough, but we continue to work every single day to acquire more tests because we don't know the duration of this,” he said.
Wednesday morning, the state will launch a new website where Vermonters can sign up to receive rapid tests by mail.
- Bob Kinzel
Vermont Department of Corrections reports new COVID cases
Three people held at the state prison in St. Johnsbury have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Corrections.
The individuals who tested positive were symptomatic and from two units at Northeast Correctional Complex.
DOC says that three other incarcerated people tested positive for covid this week. All were new intakes at the state prison in St. Albans and one has since been released.
Statewide, 50 DOC staffers currently have COVID-19.
- Liam Elder-Connors
New Dartmouth semester brings hundreds of COVID cases
Dartmouth College reported 759 new COVID cases over the past week as students returned to campus. That's according to the college’s information dashboard.
In-person academic and religious activities have not been disrupted despite the number of positive cases. The college has banned indoor social gatherings. Dining is now grab-and-go only through the first few weeks of January.
Active cases on campus climbed during the fall term, but have ballooned with students arriving for the winter term.
Dartmouth requires that students and employees be boosted by the end of the month.
- Marlon Hyde
2. Gov. Scott considering pension reform plan
Gov. Phil Scott says it’s too early for him to weigh in on a pension reform plan approved by a panel of union representatives and lawmakers on Monday.
Scott says he supports changes that will address a shortfall in the public pension system, but says he’ll need to learn more about the details before he can sign on to the proposal.
“My concerns are still the same –that we have something that’s viable, that’s sustainable in the future, regardless of whether we have all this federal money or not,” he said.
The plan, which still needs approval from the full Legislature, relies on $200 million in new state spending this year alone.
It also includes increased contributions from state employees and teachers.
- Peter Hirschfeld
3. State lawmaker pitches family-oriented tax cut
The head of the House Ways and Means Committee is proposing a $50 million tax cut targeted at families with young children.
Calais Rep. Janet Ancel says there's general agreement with the Scott Administration that the state's strong financial picture will make it possible to enact a sizeable tax cut this year.
The question that lawmakers will debate is what form the tax cut should take.
Under Ancel's plan, families would receive $100 a month for every child 6 and under. The proposal is modeled after a recent federal program.
"It seems that if we want to encourage young families to live in the state and stay in the state, targeting any kind of tax reduction that we might do for those families makes a lot of sense,” she said.
The governor is set to unveil his tax cut plan in his budget address next week.
- Bob Kinzel
4. Former U.S. Attorney mulling Senate run
Vermont's former U.S. attorney is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Christina Nolan is the first prominent Republican to file a candidacy statement with the Federal Election Commission for the seat.
Nolan filed the paperwork last week. In an email to VPR, she said that she's exploring a run but hasn't yet made a formal decision about the race.
The current field of candidates includes Democratic Congressman Peter Welch.
Nolan served as U.S. Attorney for Vermont from 2017 until last year. She was nominated by former President Donald Trump, and received bipartisan support from state leaders.
Since stepping down from the post, Nolan has worked for a private law firm in Burlington.
- Henry Epp
5. Vermont National Guard members chosen for 2022 Olympic Games
Three Vermont National Guard members will compete in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing as part of the U.S. Biathlon Team.
The event combines nordic skiing and target shooting.
Roster selections were finalized after recent races in Slovakia, according to a news release.
Two of the chosen athletes competed in the last two winter games, while the third will make her Olympic debut in Beijing. A fourth Vermont National Guard member is also serving as a men's alternate.
The biathletes will continue to train at high altitude near Jericho, and compete in international races leading up to the start of the winter games in February.
- Kevin Trevellyan
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.