MONTPELIER — State officials say hospitalizations from the coronavirus have surpassed the record set in February, with most of those cases concentrated in the southern part of the state.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s regular news conference Tuesday, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation who analyzes pandemic data, reported cases of the virus in Vermont decreased 12% during the past seven days and 16% over the past 14 days. But Pieciak noted that decrease is mostly due to decreased testing during the Thanksgiving holiday. Testing decreased 32% during the past seven days.
He said the state has seen a 12% increase in hospitalizations during the past seven days. According to the state’s coronavirus case dashboard, 84 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday. That’s 19 more people than the previous record of hospitalizations set in February, before vaccines were widely available to the public.
State officials continued to urge Vermonters to get tested if they feel sick, to get vaccinated, to get a booster shot and to wear a mask when indoors in public. Pieciak said 71% of the hospitalizations during the past seven days were those who were unvaccinated.
Critical care usage is also up. He said the state has seen a 31% increase in usage for intensive-care beds during the past seven days. Pieciak said 81% of those in the intensive-care unit with the virus were unvaccinated. According to the state’s dashboard, there were 22 people in the ICU with the virus Tuesday. That number had been around the low teens for the past several weeks.
Pieciak said deaths appear to be trending down. He said cases went up in September, October and November, but deaths from those months have gone from 50 to 46 to 34 reported in November so far.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said just under half of Vermont’s hospitalizations are in the southwestern part of the state, namely the Rutland and Bennington areas. Levine said anyone who tests positive in those areas and has mild or moderate symptoms should check with their health care provider to see if they are eligible for monoclonal antibodies. According to the Food and Drug Administration, those antibodies are a treatment from which antibodies are produced, or cloned, in a lab and act as a substitute for antibodies created by the immune system. The FDA said this treatment can make it more difficult for the virus to reproduce inside someone.
Levine said he was happy to report hospitals around the state are ordering and using more doses of this treatment. He said the hope is, increased use of this treatment will reduce the number of people who end up in the hospital with severe illness.
Mike Smith, secretary of the state Agency of Human Services, said the state is working toward expanding the number of hospital beds and ICU beds. Smith said the state has created 80 additional “subacute” beds. These are beds for people who need hospital treatment just below the level of the ICU.
He said the state has added an additional ICU bed at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington and five more such beds will be added at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Smith said more beds are expected to be added to Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin and Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans.
“We will continue to evaluate the need and the ability to bring more beds online as needed,” he said.
Officials have said a staffing shortage has resulted in a reduction in the state’s ICU capacity and more people have ended up in the hospital for non-coronavirus issues because they delayed health care as result of the pandemic.
State officials are taking a wait-and-see approach with the new omicron variant. This variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant because omicron has several mutations that might make it easier to evade the body’s immune system, though it’s unclear if it is more or less deadly or causes more severe illness. Health experts believe the current vaccines will still help prevent severe illness and death from omicron, but their effectiveness may be reduced by this variant.
On Tuesday, Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, one of the three companies that has created and distributed coronavirus vaccines in the U.S., told the Financial Times he did not think the current vaccines will be as effective against omicron as they have been against delta.
Levine said the variant has already shown up in several countries around the world, including Canada, but it has yet to be found in Vermont or the United States. He said the state continues to engage in genome sequencing for test samples of the virus and will announce if the variant is detected here.
Levine said it will take several weeks to learn more about the variant.
The governor said, “As President (Joe) Biden said yesterday, this (variant) may be cause for some concern, but not panic.”
Scott said it’s important to remember there is much of this variant that is still unknown. He said he didn’t want to speculate and wanted to instead focus on the facts.
The governor criticized the media coverage of omicron. Stock markets took a fall after the variant was announced late last week. Scott blamed that tumble on news organizations “that wanted to create more controversy.”
“The markets are hyper-sensitive right now and reacted because they heard bad news. And they heard the vaccines might not be effective, but nobody really knew that. It’s just unfortunate when news gets out just to create controversy and does harm. And I think it did some harm to the economy in doing so,” he said.
With food prices rising, organizations who help those in need are getting by for now, but some are worried about what the future holds should costs continue going up.
“The biggest pressure is demand,” said Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action. “Costs go up, people don’t have as much on their own shelves, so they come to us. In the last four months we’ve seen increases.”
Capstone roughly estimates prices are up 10%. It gets food for its food shelf by donation and by purchasing it from various sources, the Vermont Foodbank among them.
Capstone kicked off a 100-day fundraiser on Tuesday called Fuel Your Neighbors, an effort it’s been spearheading since 2016. Minter said people were more generous than ever in 2020, despite, or perhaps due to, the pandemic, but she doesn’t know what this year will hold.
The organization, which serves the central Vermont area, plans to meet the growing need for food by finding the funds to pay for it.
“That’s how we respond, we raise money,” she said.
Food being more expensive isn’t the only thing sending people to the food shelves, she said. Fuel prices have also risen sharply, meaning less money in people’s grocery budgets.
Tom Donahue, chief executive officer of BROC Community Action, which serves Rutland and Bennington counties, said that so far acquiring food for people hasn’t been an issue. BROC is fortunate to have generous donors — The annual Stuff-A-Bus event raised about $40,000 which was split with other food shelves — and relationships with local grocery stores who donate on a daily basis.
Where BROC is feeling the squeeze is on the demand side of things. More people are coming to its food shelf lately as costs increase. While 3SquaresVT benefits were increased 25%, that money isn’t buying as much as it might have before due to the higher prices.
“It’s a great program, and I fully support, it but it’s still subject to inflation, because now you’ve got the benefit amount that doesn’t go as far and to make up the difference they turn to the food shelf,” he said.
He believes BROC should be able to meet the demand for food in the foreseeable future. The food pantry recently acquired freezer space allowing it to store meat and fresh produce.
The price of turkey was up 14% this year, said John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank. Canned goods were up as well, likely due to the cost of materials, but transportation as well.
“The prices we’re paying at the Foodbank and what people are seeing at the grocery stores are up, I’d say, between 10% and 30%,” he said.
Between federal coronavirus relief money and donations the Foodbank has been able to hold the line. Sayles noted that a $9 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, a billionaire once married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has helped quite a bit to this end.
“If we had to rely on our usual donor base this would be a real stretch, and I think if this continues on for the next couple of years, it’s going to be a pinch not only to our food shelf partners, but for food banks all across the country,” he said.
Tracy Yendell, executive director at Fair Haven Concerned, said some changes have been made at the food shelf her group runs. She joined the organization in April, she said, and at the time, because of the pandemic, people would tell staff members what they needed for food and would have it brought to them. In May, it switched to letting people come in and select what they wanted.
“It’s very hard for people to come to a food shelf, it’s very hard for them to ask for help, and so we stress dignity for our clients, we revamped our entire food shelf, we set it up like a grocery store so people would feel like they’re shopping as opposed to asking, and we just really stressed client dignity,” she said. “But unfortunately on Oct. 18, I had to start limiting visits. We used to tell people to come when they need it, now we’re down to four times a month.”
She’d noticed an uptick in people coming to the food shelf since additional unemployment benefits ended.
Some food items are simply hard to find, such as tuna.
“It’s because of the supply. I cannot keep food on the shelves. We get most of our food from the Vermont Foodbank and they are awesome, but they can only offer what they have,” she said.
Matthew Stoddard never thought college was for him.
After leaving high school one credit shy of his diploma, Stoddard traveled the country with vague dreams of becoming a rock star.
Eventually, the Springfield native found himself back in Vermont, moving to Rutland 18 years ago where he now lives with his 15-year-old son.
He worked jobs in shipping and receiving, but began to realize not having a high school diploma or post-secondary education was holding him back.
In 2017, Stoddard completed his GED through Vermont Adult Learning after learning about continuing education opportunities through the Department for Children and Families’ Reach Up program.
He was then encouraged to continue his educational journey at the Community College of Vermont by DCF employee Susan Slattery, whom he credits with giving him the push he needed.
“I never really had thought about going to college that much,” said Stoddard, 45, in a recent interview.
He applied to CCV via the Post-Secondary Education program offered by DCF, which provides eligible parents with opportunities to earn undergraduate college degrees.
Stoddard said he was motivated to keep going by a desire to get on a career path that would provide him with steady work and a decent income — ideally in a field where he could express himself creatively.
Another motivating factor was his son.
“I wanted to set a good example for him,” he said.
Now, Stoddard is one class away from completing his associates degree in design and media studies, as well as a certificate in graphic design.
He will also be the first generation of his family to graduate college.
Stoddard admitted he was reluctant to attend CCV at first. He feared that, as a middle-aged, non-traditional student, he wouldn’t be accepted by his fellow classmates. He quickly learned that was not the case.
“All my classes have been really supportive. I have had a lot of other classmates that are my age or older,” he said. “ So I think that was inspiring.”
Stoddard’s story is a common one at CCV, where first-generation students represent 55% of the school’s total population, according to Elizabeth King, director of student and career services.
Because it has such a high number of first-generation students, or “first-gens,” King said CCV has designed its resources and supports to meet their unique needs and help them overcome the various obstacles they face.
“When they’re coming to us, they come with much more uncertainty in their lives than more traditional students,” she said. “It’s just a very different mindset, especially when you’re working or you have children, and you’re responsible for other things in your life.”
In addition to having access to an adviser, online tutoring services and limited one-on-one tutoring, students also benefit from multiple scholarships and even an “life-gap fund” that helps pay for unanticipated financial crises like a flat tire, unexpected medical bills or text books.
Free tuition is also available for low-income students and for students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields, like allied health and early childhood education.
First-gens also have access to the TRIO Student Support Services program, a selective, federally funded program that serves up to 225 students.
TRIO students have access to a suite of supports, including a dedicated adviser, a faculty coach who provides academic support and life coaching, private tutoring, financial literacy instruction, workshops, career instruction and financial assistance through grants.
King said those supports are crucial because first-gens typically struggle to stay enrolled in college.
According to the Education Advisory Board, 33% of first-generation students nationally don’t persist in their education.
Those numbers are even higher in a smaller state like Vermont. King said CCV data from the fall of 2019 revealed that only 40% of first-generation and low-income students persisted.
“School is … one of the first things to go,” said King. “It becomes a luxury item that they need to let go because they need to tend to children, family, work and other barriers in their lives.”
“We just really want to help first-generation students know that college is an option for them,” she added. “If they can envision it, we can help them to do that and then we can help them to succeed.”
As a single father working to make ends meet while attending college full time, Stoddard is familiar with those challenges.
“It’s a constant struggle,” he said.
He noted that feelings of isolation and depression brought on by the pandemic only made things more difficult.
Stoddard said he is grateful to have support from his academic adviser Nate Astin and TRIO coach Carol Tashie, who kept him focused on school when things got tough.
“Nate and Carol were always there for me,” he said. “Whatever I needed, they would find a way, they would be there to just, kind of, even mentally support me.”
Sometimes that support was also material, such as when Astin and Tashie helped Stoddard secure grant money to pay his electric bill or buy a new computer so he and his son wouldn’t have to share one while they were both learning remotely last year.
Astin called Stoddard an inspirational student, who advocates for himself and faces challenges head on.
“I’ve been very impressed and heartened to see how much he’s done, how much progress he’s made considering the hand he’s been dealt,” he said.
Astin added that Stoddard was also “one of the nicest students I’ve ever met.”
As Stoddard’s TRIO coach, Tashie said she served as his sounding board, advocate and cheerleader.
“Matthew has always impressed me as someone who, despite the many obstacles placed in his way, will rise to the top and make great things happen,” she said, noting his sincerity, honesty and creativity.
She said that while he might not be a traditional college student in terms of age and experience, “he brings to the table the skills, talents and personality to be successful.”
“I don’t have ‘hopes’ for Matthew, I have confidence — confidence that he will achieve his dreams,” said Tashie. “What a joy it is to work with someone so motivated and determined to create an enviable life for himself and his son.”
With CCV nearly behind him, Stoddard is planning to enroll at Castleton University to pursue his bachelor’s degree.
He hopes to get a job in graphic design or web design and, eventually, even start his own business.
While initially apprehensive about college, Stoddard said he is glad he persevered and grateful to those who helped him along they way.
“Now, I can’t imagine not doing it,” he said.
Virus pill here
The Federal Drug Administration has backed a pill from Merck that patients can take home to treat coronavirus. A3
The Vermont high school Division III All-State football team was recently announced by the VIFL. B1