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Covid19
State revises contact tracing guidance for schools

The state has updated its guidance for conducting contact tracing in pre-K-12 schools.

On Thursday, the Agency of Education (AOE) released a revised memo intended to streamline the contact-tracing process, reduce in-school transmission of COVID-19 and keep more kids in classrooms.

This school year, contact tracing — or the process of attempting to identify people who have been in recent contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID — has become a complex and time-consuming task for schools as cases have spiked across the state, including among children, due to the highly transmissible delta variant.

According to state data released on Oct. 18, 125 cases of COVID were reported in pre-K-12 schools during the previous seven days for a total of 978 cases since schools reopened this fall.

On Friday, the state reported 224 new cases of COVID, with 47 hospitalizations, including 10 people in intensive care.

Some families have contended the contact-tracing process is burdensome and disruptive, and has led to increased learning loss among uninfected students who are required to quarantine outside school.

The new memo, which draws on feedback from the Vermont Chapter of the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the state’s pediatric infectious disease medical advisers, the Vermont State School Nurses Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association, revises close contacts definitions and outlines contact tracing strategies for different school settings.

Under the new definition, a close contact for students in school settings is anyone within 3 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. The previous definition set the minimum distance at 6 feet.

In cases where students are younger or where 3-feet/15-minute definition makes contact tracing overly complex, schools are instructed to use the “4-hour rule,” which defines close contacts as students who are in the same classroom or pod for four hours or more, even if students change physical location together during this time.

“Schools may use the above definitions as long as universal masking is in effect; masks must be used correctly and consistently,” the memo states, adding that the definitions do not apply to teachers and staff in school settings.

The memo classifies outdoor environments as “generally low risk” and tells schools not to track close contacts in these settings.

Contact-tracing guidance for school buses has been revised to include only the seatmate of a case. The memo advises schools to enforce assigned seating to simplify the process, as well as to continue to operate with windows open to increase ventilation.

In lunchrooms, the state “strongly recommended” that elementary schools continue to enforce assigned seating or eating in classrooms. Middle and high schools students are advised to, whenever possible, maintain a 3- to 6-foot distance while eating.

Dr. Becca Bell, president of AAPVT and a pediatric critical care physician at UVM Medical Center, acknowledged the effects quarantining has on students’ well being.

“It has effects on their education, it has downstream effects on their parents’ ability to work,” she said.

By more narrowly defining close contacts, she said, schools can more precisely identify individuals who are at higher risk after exposure and quarantine only them rather than those who are considered low-risk.

Bell said the new guidance was informed by studies that were published this spring that compared school mitigation strategies in other states. Those states, she explained, did not see increased in-school transmission.

She pointed to Massachusetts in particular, where schools have seen little in-school transmission despite eliminating contact tracing on buses and identifying close contacts at 3 feet rather than 6 feet.

“That data has been really reassuring to us,” she said.

Nonetheless, pediatric cases of COVID continue to rise across the country.

In the first two weeks of October, there was a 5% increase — or 278,798 cases — in the cumulated number of child COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to national AAP data. Children represented 25.5% of the weekly reported cases between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14.

In Vermont, cases are currently highest among children up to 11 years old, with 46 cases per 10,000.

But while positive cases remain high, Bell noted that few kids are ending up in hospitals.

“One of the metrics that I keep a close eye on is the pediatric hospitalization rate, and that remains very low in Vermont — particularly in comparison to the rest of the country,” she said.

Bell said Vermont’s pediatric hospitalization rate is less than 0.1%.

Among states reporting, children ranged from 0.1% to 2% of all their COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalization, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Bell attributed Vermont’s low hospitalization rate to high vaccination rates among the state’s adolescent population compared to other parts of the country.

On Friday, the state reported almost 76% of 12- to 15-year-olds and almost 79% of 16- and 17-year-olds had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

David Younce, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association and superintendent of Mill River Unified Union School District, welcomed the updated contact tracing guidance, calling it timely and science-based.

“I think there are going to be some improvements that come from the shifts,” he said.

Last month, the state announced it would roll out a new response testing program, called Test to Stay, that would allow individual schools to administer rapid antigen tests to exposed individuals onsite.

While the plan was intended to reduce the need to quarantine students, some school districts around the state — including Mill River — have raised concerns about their ability to stand up the program, citing a lack of available staff.

The revised contact-tracing guidance, then, appears to be an attempt by the state to alleviate the burden so schools can more easily pivot to testing.

“(Supervisory unions/school districts) and independent schools should redeploy staff accordingly,” the memo reads.

Younce said he is hopeful decreasing the contact tracing burden will free up personnel for other activities, like testing, but it’s too soon to tell for certain.

“I need to keep an eye on how the changes actually affect the work that’s happening in the buildings and how that translates to more flexibility to get the other things done,” he said. “But right now, I don’t see any immediate changes to our capacity until we see how things actually play out.”

Younce noted, for example, that new guidance won’t have much of an impact at the elementary level, where the four-hour rule would apply.

“You still have the scenario where you could potentially have an entire class put into quarantine because of a positive case that was in the room,” he said.

He said getting younger students vaccinated will be the biggest help, since vaccinated students do not need to be contact traced.

“I have some optimism that this will alleviate some of the burden but, at the same time, I still think we have a couple months of pretty heavy contact tracing burden ahead of us until all those vaccinations start to get on board,” he said.

Bell agreed the ability to vaccinate younger children will be a “game changer” for families.

“I just keep telling families to hang in there. And that we’ll be getting younger kids vaccinated soon,” she said, adding that the Pfizer vaccine could be available to children ages 5-11 by early November.

In the meantime, she advised families continue to take precautions, such as wearing masks indoors when having mixed household gatherings and getting their flu shots.

“We are expecting and preparing to have a flu season this year,” she said.

Back at Mill River, Younce said the district has experienced a “quiet week” after a recent spike in COVID cases.

“Folks are trying to do the best they can with maintaining the masking and making good decisions and staying home when they’re sick. And I think that has been what has allowed us to have some relative success here,” he said.

But he noted that everyone — students, faculty, staff, families — is tired.

“We’re really, really looking for the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com


At the Brown Covered Bridge in Shrewsbury, the Cold River flows under the bridge and downstream.

Flowing river waters


News
Drug and human trafficking
Police: Raid looks for evidence of human trafficking, drug sales

A pre-dawn raid of two homes in Rutland’s Northwest neighborhood Friday found evidence of possible human trafficking, according to Vermont State Police.

Federal, state and local law-enforcement officers executed search warrants this morning at two homes, on Baxter and Maple streets, because of possible drug trafficking activity and the possibility some women might be confined at the Maple Street home against their will.

Members of the State Police Tactical Services Unit and a special response team of the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations from the Boston field office executed the two search warrants at the homes, at 47 Baxter St. and at 146 Maple St.

According to a State Police release, the two homes were suspected of being linked by drug trafficking activity.

Investigators had received “indicators” that women might be confined at the Maple Street home.

When police entered that home, troopers and Homeland Security special agents found evidence indicating potential human trafficking, including a padlocked apartment door and multiple chain-link storage areas.

Law-enforcement officers found three women behind the padlocked apartment door.

Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said two of the women were locals.

The release said that while the women did not appear to be injured, they were checked and cleared by medical personnel as a precaution.

At the time the release was sent, around 2:30 p.m., the women were being interviewed and a victim witness advocate who specializes in human trafficking was on scene.

Kilcullen said Friday afternoon that law-enforcement officers were talking to five people who had been detained after the raid but said at the time he spoke with the Herald, no one had yet been cited.

Kilcullen said he was not aware of any resistance from those at the scene nor of any reports of injuries from the officers who executed the search warrants. He estimated about two dozens officers were involved.

While he said he couldn’t provide details, Kilcullen said items, which could be “potential evidence,” had been recovered while law-enforcement officers were executing the search warrants.

According to Kilcullen, the investigation leading to Friday’s raid took what he estimated to be several months before police were ready to apply for and execute search warrants.

On social media, one of the early signs of a law-enforcement response was a helicopter that was noted as hovering in the area. Kilcullen confirmed there was a helicopter that was part of the response and said that was a demonstration of the resources of the agencies involved in the investigation.

“Involving multiple agencies allows access to significant resources,” he said.

Kilcullen estimated the raid started around 6 a.m. Friday.

The activity in the neighborhood drew the interest of area residents.

“It started out with flashbangs at about 6 in the morning,” said Curtis Corse, who lives across the street from the Baxter Street house.

Corse said he initially thought the sounds were gunshots.

“They got the whole neighborhood good,” he said. “Everybody was up. I don’t think anyone was too upset about it.”

Indeed, many in the neighborhood seemed pleased at the action. One driver slowed his truck as be passed and said “About time” to a group standing on the sidewalk.

“We have videos of overdoses on our street, and the cops have let them walk away,” said Mari Roberts, another neighborhood resident. “This has been going on for a while — years. It’s sad because a lot of these places are so misused. People need apartments right now, and drug dealers are using them up.”

On the Rutland City Police Department Facebook page, there was great support for the actions taken by law enforcement in the area.

“We recognize incredible support for law enforcement in general from the local community. We’re absolutely very appreciative of that support. The fact that we were able to act on some information that was brought to our attention and learned through our investigation, I think, shows our commitment to be responsive to our community,” Kilcullen said.

Kilcullen said the investigation was spurred in part by complaints from neighbors about drug activity in the area.

“We’ve had complaints on activity for a period of time,” he said. “I would say the investigation became very active quite recently.”

Kilcullen said he expects police will know by Monday whether charges will be filed. The investigation may lead to other suspects, he added.

Police do not believe there is any danger to the public as a result of the investigation.

State Police members, including the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, Narcotics Investigation Unit and uniformed troopers from the Field Force Division, are working with special agents from Homeland Security’s Burlington and Boston field offices.

The release said local law enforcement, the Rutland City Police department and Rutland County Sheriff’s Office, provided “vital assistance.”

Law-enforcement officers were continuing to search and process evidence obtained from both homes, according to the VSP release.

Anyone with information that could assist the investigation is asked to call the Homeland Security tip line at 866-347-2423.

Gordon Dritschilo contributed to this story.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com


In Shrewsbury, a horse grazes on wild greenery.

Green tender grazing


Local
New owner has long history at Southside Steakhouse

One of the new owners of Southside Steakhouse started his career there.

Mark Williams is slated to take over the restaurant next month along with business partners Patrick Norton and Chasity Galimi. The new owners were approved for a liquor license by the Board of Aldermen this week and have a purchase and sale agreement with outgoing owner Wally Sabotka.

Williams, who owns Sam’s Steak House and Mr. Darcy’s Bar & Burger in Ludlow, said he started working for Sabotka at the age of 16, splitting his time between Southside and Sam’s, which was also owned by Sabotka at the time.

“I worked for Wally as a kid in high school and I followed him right along,” Williams said Friday. “I watched every move he made. I listened. He set a positive example for my life, and he really changed my life.”

Williams summed up the lessons he learned under Sabotka as the importance of “loyalty, integrity and treating people right.”

Williams said he was excited to expand into Rutland, having weathered COVID with his Ludlow restaurants.

“We’ve been very lucky to have a local clientele as well as an out-of-state clientele,” he said. “We’ve had to adapt by adding online ordering, really just adapt with the times.”

Williams said Norton, who worked alongside him for Sabotka for years and is one of the most talented chefs he knew, would be working in the background initially as they get used to running three restaurants at once. He said the third partner, Galimi, came up working for him at Mr. Darcy’s.

“She’s a smart, hardworking young lady,” he said. “She did everything I asked. I want her to really take off in her life.”

Fans of Southside need not fear any immediate changes, Williams said.

“I think there’s always room for improvement and room for new and fresh ideas,” he said. “At this time I’d like to keep Southside as it is because I think it’s one of the best in Rutland.”

Sabotka did not immediately return calls seeking comment Friday. Williams said his old mentor may be more interested in roles as a consultant or an investor, but he doubted Sabotka was ready for retirement.

“I don’t think Wally can ever really retire,” Williams said. “He is a workhorse, and he is very passionate about the restaurant industry.”

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com


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