MONTPELIER — More than 26,600 Vermonters have now received their first shot of the novel coronavirus vaccine, though officials warn there are now two variants of the virus that have their attention.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday news conference, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation who has been analyzing the pandemic data, said cases have never been higher in the United States.
“With the country averaging close to a quarter million new cases on a daily basis,” Pieciak said.
Vermont has seen an increase in cases, as well. It’s no longer uncommon to see new cases in the triple digits. There were 109 new cases of the virus in the state reported Monday and 167 reported Tuesday.
Pieciak said during the past five days, Vermont has seen more new cases than in all of May, June, July, August and September combined.
The death toll is now 158 in the state after two more deaths were reported Tuesday.
He said an average of more than 3,000 people are now dying from the virus every day in the U.S.
Regionally, he said, hospitalizations are up. There are currently 51 people hospitalized in Vermont as consequence of the virus and 10 of them are in intensive care.
Pieciak said the data suggests the increased cases are because of holiday gatherings.
He said cases are predicted to continue to rise into early February, with a possible average of 300 cases per day, before they start falling again. While the increase is concerning, Pieciak said the state would need to see 380 cases per day to approach the level of ICU capacity in Vermont.
According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, more than 26,600 residents, or 4.3% of the population older than 16, have received their first dose of the vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. The state has reported 1,781 people have now received both shots of the vaccine.
Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said a new, more transmissible variant of virus has arrived in the U.S., so-called B-117. Levine said this variant, which is 50% more transmissible, has been found in 10 states, including Connecticut and New York. He said residents should expect to see the variant in Vermont, though. it hasn’t been confirmed here yet.
He said those at the state’s public health lab are working with their counterparts at the University of Vermont on developing ways to rapidly sequence the genome of the virus in an attempt to find the variant.
Levine said a second variant has been found in South Africa, but that one doesn’t appear to have made its way to the U.S.
He said it appears the two available vaccines are still effective against B-117, or the “United Kingdom variant,” but it’s unknown if they will work on the South African version of the virus.
The virus could mutate to a point where the vaccines no longer work. Levine said he’s mildly concerned about that, but it highlights the importance of getting as many people vaccinated now as quickly as possible so the virus doesn’t have as many opportunities to mutate.
“It really is a race against the clock, in some sense. Because we know the current vaccine and what it is effective against,” he said.
While emergency responders, health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities continue to receive their first shots of the vaccine, state officials are expected to give an update on the next phase of vaccinations Friday. Officials have said that phase, with a focus on older citizens first, likely won’t start until the end of the month.
Last year, the Gift of Life Marathon reached its goal despite COVID that kept some donors away, as well as blizzard that fell the night before one blood drive.
That success may be tied to the 100th birthday of Mary Ojala, who died Monday.
Ojala was named as the longest-serving volunteer for the Northern New England Region in an article for the American Red Cross last year.
Because Ojala, who had been a volunteer at Rutland blood drives since before the Gift of Life Marathon began, turned 100 in November, the 2020 GOLM served as her centennial birthday party.
Before the 2020 GOLM, Ojala told the Rutland Herald why she was asking people who wanted to give her a birthday gift to donate blood.
“(A blood donation) affects a lot of people. None of us know how many. You might be saving one life or you could be saving several. It’s a very important thing to do,” she said.
Locally, Ojala, who lived in the Rutland area for many years, had volunteered for about 33 years after retiring from her time as the activities director at the Beverly Manor nursing home. She stepped down from her volunteer work when she was 93 but came back as a spokeswoman for the 2020 GOLM.
She said in November that her fondest memories of volunteering were the people she got to know.
“I used to be at the table after the donors had given blood. I would be at that table where they would get coffee and some refreshments, and I got to meet a lot of nice people. I’m still friends with them for years,” she said.
Her son, Carl “Gus” Ojala, said her family had been able to bring his mother home before she passed so she could be with her family.
“She always had a big heart. She loved her family and the community,” he said.
After Mary Ojala left Jersey City, New Jersey, she came to love Vermont and the Rutland area, her son said.
The 2020 GOLM was “incredible and almost overwhelming” for Mary, Gus Ojala said, because she got such an outpouring of support and love.
“She just loved the volunteers, the people who worked at the Red Cross and the donors — she got to know a lot of the donors. So for her to have her name put on the same line as that blood drive, like she said, (it was) just overwhelming — very emotional for her,” Gus Ojala said.
He added that his mother was very pleased that despite the challenges, the GOLM met and exceeded its goal of 495 donations in 2020 by collecting 525 donations.
By email, Mary Brant, communications manager for the American Red Cross Northern New England Region, said more than 90% of the American Red Cross workforce is made up of volunteers.
“We could not fulfill our humanitarian mission without them. We were so blessed to have Mary Ojala as a volunteer with our organization. She brought joy to everything she did and everyone who met her,” Brant said.
Steve Costello, a vice president at Green Mountain Power and an organizer for the GOLM, said he had known Mary Ojala, whom he met as a blood drive volunteer, for a little more than 20 years.
“She’s just an amazing person. If you think about it, someone continuing to volunteer and help, literally right to her very last days of life at 100 is pretty amazing,” he said.
Costello noted Ojala did multiple interviews and wrote several letters supporting the 2020 GOLM just around the time she turned 100 in November.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that she had an enormous impact in helping us reach our goal,” he said.
Costello compared her effectiveness to Stefanie Schaffer, of Rutland, who served as spokeswoman in 2019, after Schaffer was injured in a 2018 accident, which left her needing blood donations.
Another GOLM organizer, Terry Jarrosak, known to his radio audience as Terry Jaye, said he appreciated the contribution Ojala made.
“We got to celebrate her and she got to celebrate her 100th the way that she wanted to,” he said.
Jaye said his heart went out to Ojala’s family.
Gus Ojala said that in a family with eight siblings, including himself, evenly split between sons and daughters, and which also includes grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Mary Ojala was the “glue of this family.”
“She showed us what family really is,” he said.
The Rutland Herald has a new publisher, its fourth in a 10-year period.
Ed Coats, 64, took on his new role Jan. 4.
“I originally grew up in Canandaigua, New York, which is just south of Rochester, but I’ve been just across the lake over at Denton Publications for the last 30 years, so this is pretty much home,” he said on Tuesday.
For the past six months, Coats has been a consultant for the Times Argus, which is owned along with the Rutland Herald by Brunswick Publishing LLC, part of the Sample News Group.
Coats has been working in Vermont since 1995, he said, having been the associate publisher at Denton Publications and co-owner of the Addison Eagle in Middlebury. Denton Publications runs a group of weekly newspapers called Sun Community News, which span from the Canadian border to Glens Falls, New York.
He said he came to The Times Argus and the Herald looking for a new challenge.
“I wasn’t ready to retire just yet, so I thought I would take on the challenges of putting the Herald back into the epicenter of the community and making it be the daily that I remember it was back in 1995 when I first came to Vermont to run newspapers,” he said, recalling days when the Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press were the dominant print news organizations in the state.
Coats said he thinks he can bring some of that influence back.
“It’s all about community involvement, and coming from a group of community papers I know what local content and what local news means to a community and how successful they can be, and we have to look in that arena.”
He said national news is available constantly from sources that can deliver it instantly and for free, leaving local news a niche papers like the Rutland Herald can fill by being more vibrant and community oriented.
“The first thing we did, we just initiated a front-page banner to allow our advertisers to have front-page advertising as well as front-page news on the front cover of the Herald,” said Coats. “They’ll be seeing more aggressive rates, they’ll be seeing more color in the paper, they’ll be seeing us get involved in more community events, being out front in the community, which we’ve been lacking in for several years.”
He said he aims to improve circulation and deliver and to modernize the paper’s format, along with the Rutland Reader.
The pandemic has made his task more difficult, but it’s doable still, he said. Local, daily newspapers have found ways to survive.
“There’s plenty of examples of that, and in almost every case the newspapers that have turned around have gone back to their roots; most of them are relatively locally owned, or in small groups, and they focus on the local community with things people can’t get from the 24/7 news cycle,” he said.
Steven Pappas was publisher of the Rutland Herald prior to Coats. Pappas remains publisher of The Times Argus and is executive editor for both publications.
Pappas said Tuesday that Coats has a long history in the business side of newspapers and was able to improve practices at The Times Argus and identify areas where money was to be made.
“This is a guy who actually knows how to do this pretty well, and he can throw different ideas out there. … He’s all about ideas, he’s always cultivating what other papers are doing and seeing if he can morph it into something he can do,” said Pappas.
At The Times Argus, Coats was able to form a partnership with the Waterbury Roundabout, an online publication, and form the Waterbury Reader. Pappas said that’s worked so well it’s become somewhat difficult to manage.
“It’s in a time where the industry has been feeling really low and kind of dreadful, it’s been really nice to do things where you’re seeing people really appreciate the paper and wanting to invest in us,” said Pappas.
People do like their local daily newspaper, something Coats will be able to use to his advantage, said Rutland City Mayor David Allaire on Wednesday.
From 2011 to 2016, Allaire worked under Coats selling advertisements for the Addison Eagle.
“He was a great boss and treated me fairly, and had a successful run with the paper,” said Allaire. “He was always very… open to new ideas, he took a lot of input from us because we were out there on the ground.”
He said the pandemic will make achieving Coats’ goals challenging, but he’s up to the task.
“I think there’s a lot of potential here in the Rutland City area,” he said. “People still like to get their local news from their local paper. I think in general people want the Rutland Herald to be successful, so I think that is something he can use to his advantage.”
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