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News roundup: Vermont schools, corrections facilities struggling with staffing shortages

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, Jan. 26.

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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 findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. Health officials report four more Vermonters have died from COVID-19

Vermont health officials reported Wednesday that four more Vermonters have died from COVID-19. The state’s pandemic death toll is now at 527 people.

According to the Health Department COVID dashboard, 115 people are hospitalized, with 23 in the ICU.

Officials reported an additional 523 COVID cases Wednesday, and a seven-day positivity rate of 11.5%.

- Elodie Reed

Gov. Scott urges Vermonters to get boosted

The Scott administration is encouraging all Vermonters to get a COVID booster because new medical studies indicate the shots are highly effective in dealing with symptoms of the omicron variant.

Gov. Phil Scott says that over 250,000 Vermonters have received a booster to date – but he says that represents only 60% of all people 18 and older.

"And I share this data only to emphasize how important it is to get vaccinated and boosted,” he said. “Staying up to date protects you from severe illness and keeps people out of the hospital. And even though we lead the country, there are still about 200,000 Vermonters who are eligible for a booster but haven't received one."

The state's new COVID modeling reports says roughly 77% of Vermonters over 65 have received a booster.

- Bob Kinzel

Health commissioner says it’s too soon to say whether second booster shot is needed

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says it's much too soon to determine if a second booster will be needed to protect against COVID-19.

Levine says the first booster has proven to be an effective way to curb symptoms from the omicron variant.

But he says there needs to be more research into second boosters.

"So there is no talk in the United States for needing a second booster shot,” Levine said. “It's really going to be evaluated over the course of the next calendar year to see how well boosting-induced immunity is maintained."

Levine says U.S. health officials are keeping a close watch on Israel, where the government is already recommending a second booster for older people, and high-risk individuals.

- Bob Kinzel

State officials focusing on hospitalizations to measure COVID spread

The Scott administration is focusing on the state's COVID hospitalization rate as a key measure of Vermonters' health during the pandemic.

During the most recent omicron surge, the COVID case rate has risen much faster than the hospitalization rate.

Scott says this is happening because the omicron variant is more infectious than the delta variant, but typically produces less severe illness.

"We're seeing a milder variant. But if we keep focusing on the hospitalizations for the health of Vermonters, I think that's the best metric to use and it's consistent,” he said.

Despite the rise in hospitalizations over the past three weeks, Vermont ranks third in the country for the fewest per capita COVID-related hospital admissions.

- Bob Kinzel

Number of Vermonters hospitalized, COVID case rates appear to no longer be rising

The number of Vermonters hospitalized with COVID appears to have leveled off.

That follows trends throughout the Northeast.

At the governor’s press conference Tuesday, Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said the state has continued to report around 100 COVID hospitalizations in recent days.

“We do anticipate starting to see hospitalizations come down over the next week and continue to come down as fewer cases are reported in Vermont,” he said. “So that means there are fewer people going to the hospital that need to be treated for COVID… and fewer people who are admitted for other reasons who happen to test positive while there.”

Pieciak added that more Vermonters over 65 end up in the hospital with COVID than other age groups, regardless of their vaccination status.

COVID case rates are also falling across Vermont for the second week in a row.

While statewide testing rates have decreased, cases are down more.

That’s according to Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, who spoke at the governor’s weekly press conference Tuesday.

“We’ve also seen corroborating evidence from our Burlington wastewater collection showing improvements in levels of omicron detected in all of the stations that are tested in that municipality,” he said.

Over 1,000 Vermonters continue to test positive each day on average, according to state data.

The total number of new daily infections is likely four or five times higher.

- Lexi Krupp

More from VPR: Reporter debrief: State modeling shows COVID cases, hospitalizations starting to trend down

2. Schools are weathering staffing issues

Some schools are still scrambling to figure out if they can safely staff their buildings as they continue to deal with COVID-related teacher and staff shortages.

At St. Johnsbury School, staffing challenges are the hardest they’ve been since the pandemic began.

That’s according to superintendent Brian Ricca, who speaks with colleagues every day about staffing.

“Around 8:30, 9 o’clock, we’ll get on a text chain: ‘How are things looking? What is it looking like right now?’ Then we do that again at five in the morning to say, ‘Where are we now?’ Because we don't want the situation to have drastically changed and really be caught short staffed. So it’s almost a snow day call every day,” he said.

Last week, Ricca decided to close school on Friday because too many key staff members were out.

- Lexi Krupp

Education secretary says he’s confident schools will have enough COVID tests going forward

The state’s shift in guidance around COVID testing for students has left many Vermont schools without enough rapid tests in recent days.

At the governor’s press conference Tuesday, Education Secretary Dan French said he’s confident the state will have enough tests to supply the program going forward.

And he said the change was necessary.

“We made the shift because we had to, not because the timing was ideal, or for that matter even good,” he said. “In fact, this is one of the more challenging times we've seen in schools during the pandemic.”

The new policy says any student in the same class as someone who tested positive is considered a close contact.

It relies on families to test students at home, rather than in school.

- Lexi Krupp

3. Vermont corrections facilities squeezed by staffing shortages

Staffing shortages at the Department of Corrections have led to crisis situations in Vermont prisons, according to Steve Howard, executive director of the union that represents state workers.

“We are in a five-alarm fire. This is an immediate crisis,” he said to Senate lawmakers on Tuesday.

Howard said the state experienced 44% turnover in entry-level corrections positions last year.

And he said corrections officers are being forced to work unhealthy amounts of overtime.

Howard said lawmakers and the Scott administration need to increase corrections spending by $15-20 million to address the workforce shortage.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. UVM research fills in gaps about algae blooms

New research from the University of Vermont sheds greater light on what triggers toxic cyanobacteria, or "blue-green-algae" blooms, in Lake Champlain's Missisquoi Bay.

Climate scientists agree: Vermont is already getting warmer and wetter due to climate change. Projections show the state can also expect more frequent floods and droughts.

Cyanobacteria blooms happen when there's a mix of extra nutrients in the water and warm temperatures. Runoff can lead to that, and a lot of prior research has focused on how extreme precipitation makes it worse.

The new research from UVM finds it's not just heavy precipitation events or prolonged heat that can cause blooms -- it's the sequence of those events that matters.

“We need to be very mindful about not just looking at the floods, but also at the droughts that could have an effect on blooms,” said Dr. Asim Zia, lead study author.

Zia and his colleagues crunched decades worth of climate data and examined how water quality might change under different scenarios.

The tool could be applied to any waterway in the world.

- Abagael Giles

5. Scott administration proposes spending $45 million in surplus funds to improve technical education centers

The Scott administration wants to use a projected surplus in the education fund to spruce up technical education centers in Vermont.

Deputy Education Secretary Heather Bouchey told lawmakers on Tuesday that Gov. Phil Scott wants to spend $45 million on physical improvements to career and technical education centers.

“So that we can actually use these dollars to really make sure that our CTE facilities are modern, have what they need to be functional as buildings,” Bouchey said.

The request is part of a larger workforce development proposal geared toward the trades.

Scott says the state needs more skilled workers to construct affordable housing and build out broadband infrastructure.

- Peter Hirschfeld

6. Dartmouth College president to step down

The president of Dartmouth College has said he will step down in June 2023 after 10 years leading the Ivy League school in Hanover.

Philip Hanlon said Tuesday that his vision for his presidency has become a reality: Dartmouth has become a magnet for talent, taken on some of the world's most urgent challenges and the connection between students and faculty has been elevated.

During his tenure, Hanlon has been under pressure to address problems including high-risk drinking, sexual assault and a lack of inclusion.

The school has responded with a range of reforms, some which are still being implemented.

- Associated Press

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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