News roundup: Vt. hospital capacity improving, but blood supply at critical lows
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, low blood supply levels and more for Wednesday, Feb. 2.
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. State officials report three more Vermonters have died from COVID-19
Three more people have died from COVID-19, according to Vermont officials. The pandemic death toll is now at 545 Vermonters.
Hospitalization numbers decreased, with the state’s COVID dashboard showing 88 people in the hospital, including 23 in the ICU.
Officials documented an additional 677 new COVID cases Wednesday. The state’s positivity rate is down slightly to 9.2%.
- Elodie Reed
State official signals transition toward endemic stage with coronavirus
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says the state is approaching a significant transition in dealing with COVID-19.
Levine says his department is planning to draft a package of prevention measures that will move Vermont from treating COVID as a health care emergency to an ongoing health issue.
He says this means moving away from considering COVID as a "pandemic" disease.
"A time when COVID is less disruptive and people have learned to live with and manage it. Not unlike the flu – a virus that can be dangerous but is largely managed through regular vaccinations and good prevention practices,” Levine said.
When these changes are put into place, Levine says it will still be critical to offer key protections to all high risk and vulnerable Vermonters.
- Bob Kinzel
Over the past week, new COVID-19 cases in Vermont have declined sharply
State Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak says the surge of omicron variant cases peaked roughly three weeks ago. Since then, it has been going down steadily.
Pieciak says case numbers are improving across the Northeast, including in Vermont.
"Our cases are down about 40% this past week, down over 50% over the last 14 days,” he said.
Pieciak says hospitalization rates have also fallen by more than 10% in the past week.
- Bob Kinzel
State official: New testing strategy is keeping schools open
The shift away from contact tracing inside schools has led to fewer school closings, Vermont education secretary Dan French said Tuesday.
French also said the state’s high vaccination rate has helped schools remain open.
“Vermont is the national leader in student vaccination, with about 60% of our [Grade] five through 11 students having at least one dose. And 50% now being fully vaccinated,” he said.
French said schools are relying on a test-at-home strategy, which he acknowledged was unsettling for schools, as it shifts decision making to families.
He said buses and cafeterias have not been risky for students to spread COVID, and most school cases come from community spread.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
Scott calls for reopening prison access to visitors, volunteers
Gov. Phil Scott says he wants Vermont’s prisons to once again be open to visitors and substance abuse recovery volunteers.
Correctional facilities briefly re-opened to visitors this summer, but then closed again as the delta variant spread.
“I believe we need to get back to normal, and that would include visitation in some of those institutions. And do so in a manner that would help those who are incarcerated, as well as the family members alike,” Scott said.
A report released last week by the University of Vermont found widespread mental health issues at the state’s prison in Springfield.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
2. Vt. hospital capacity improving, but blood supply at critical lows
Vermont's COVID hospitalization rates are some of the lowest in the country.
While things are not back to normal, people have shorter waits for care, and it’s easier to transfer patients than in recent weeks.
But hospitals face another issue: blood supply is at critical lows.
Dr. Trey Dobson, of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, says that could impact someone in a traumatic accident, or a patient undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment.
“With the supply so extremely low, it is very plausible that a patient could die because blood was not available,” Dobson said. “And that is not something most of us in health care have experienced in the past.”
The blood shortage is a problem across the country.
- Lexi Krupp
3. Governor says he opposes new gun control policy working through Legislature
Gov. Phil Scott says he opposes a new gun control policy working its way through the Legislature – but he stopped short of saying he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
The main part of the bill extends the potential waiting period to purchase a gun.
Currently, a dealer can transfer a gun to a buyer if a background check hasn't been completed within a three day period. This proposal extends that period to up to 30 days.
Gov. Scott says there's no need for this bill and he'd rather enforce existing laws.
"And make sure people know how to utilize the tools we have now, rather than go and make new laws,” Scott said. “So in the end, I don't believe that we need to change any of our gun laws at this point in time."
The House passed the bill late last month and it will now be considered by the Senate.
- Bob Kinzel
4. Molly Gray boasts largest war chest in U.S. House race
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray outraised Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint in the first few months of the 2022 congressional race, according to new campaign finance filings. Both politicians are running in the Democratic primary to replace Congressman Peter Welch.
Gray raised $318,000 through the end of December, outpacing Balint who brought in over $200,000 dollars.
Gray's backers include former Gov. Howard Dean, renewable energy executive David Blittersdorf and Burlington real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau.
Actress Jane Lynch and former state Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund were among Balint's donors.
State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale is also running in the Democratic primary. But the new filings only cover contributions through the end of December, before she declared her candidacy. In a press release last month, Ram Hinsdale's campaign said it raised over $200,000 in its first 36 hours.
- Henry Epp
Peter Welch has raised over half million dollars in last three months of 2021 for U.S. Senate race
Congressman Peter Welch has a major cash advantage as he begins the race for U.S Senate. The Democrat raised over half a million dollars in the last three months of 2021. That's according to new campaign finance filings.
On top of contributions from individuals and political action committees, Welch transferred over $2 million from his House account to his Senate account in the final quarter of 2021.
Welch swore off contributions from corporate PACs in the Senate race. And while he didn't receive any direct corporate gifts between October and December, he did receive funds from industry groups like the National Association of Broadcasters and the American Hospital Association.
The funds transferred from Welch's House account were also built in part through corporate donations over the years from companies like Home Depot, Walgreens and Ford.
Only one other candidate in the Senate race reported any fundraising activity: Democrat Niki Thran, a physician who raised $16,000.
- Henry Epp
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.