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Covid19
Schools to remain closed
Scott: Schools to remain closed for consistency, certainty

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said he closed down in-person teaching for the rest of the school year so people wouldn’t be left guessing.

Officials gave updated statistics to the novel coronavirus pandemic and announced slightly relaxed restrictions on testing for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Vermont Department of Health announced Friday there had been 26 new cases in a day in Vermont, with one new death attributed to COVID-19.

The first two deaths from COVID were reported on March 19. As of Friday, the total number of Vermont deaths is 10.

The number of positive tests for COVID as for Friday was 184 out of 2,261 tests. The number reported on Thursday was 158.

On Thursday evening, the governor dismissed schools for in-person teaching for the rest of the school year. He held a news conference to talk about that decision Friday.

“However, to make sure our kids continue learning, I’m asking districts to complete plans for continued education through remote learning so we’re ready to go April 13. I know this news is incredibly difficult. Let’s face it: It’s disappointing, frustrating and it’s just plain sad for kids, parents, teachers and all school employees. My heart goes out to all of you. It’s going to be hard. I know that,” he said.

Scott said the sobering reality is, before too long, everyone will know someone who has died from the virus. As of Friday morning, there have been 10 deaths related to the virus in the state and 184 people have tested positive. Seven of those deaths come from an outbreak of the virus at the Burlington Health and Rehab Center.

Scott said in making this decision now he hopes the virus will be brought under control in time for students to take part in activities such as graduation before the summer starts.

“But we won’t make that decision until we’re certain it’s safe. For now, we need to use our creativity to find ways to deliver quality remote learning for our students through the end of the school year,” he said.

Scott said child care providers will remain closed except for those serving families with essential workers.

School buildings were closed March 15 and were to remain closed through April 6, but Scott said he decided to extend the closure Thursday instead of waiting in the interest of consistency.

“People want to know what’s going to happen, and if we put this plan into place, I think we’ll get better as time goes on,” he said, adding he didn’t want residents to get false expectations of schools opening back up for teaching.

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said it was a challenging decision, but public health has to take priority.

There has been a national shortage of tests for the virus. Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said Vermont has been able to acquire more tests and equipment to collect test samples through “a very aggressive procurement strategy” so the testing criteria will be slightly relaxed.

“Now tests will still be prioritized and patients who have no symptoms will not be tested. But people who have mild or more moderate symptoms will have more opportunity to be tested now. They will still need to call to talk to their physician or other health care provider so that they may order the test. Let me be clear, you cannot just show up to a testing facility or a drive-thru. The test must be ordered by your physician,” he said.

Levine said the hope is to find more patients early, isolate them and slow the spread.

According to health officials, those who are most at risk for the virus are older people, those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues. Levine said he’s also concerned for those who smoke or vape and those who need treatment for alcohol or substance use.

Levine said everyone knows cigarettes harm the lungs and research is showing vaping or using e-cigarettes can cause issues as well. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease.

“It really makes it harder for people who smoke or vape, whatever tobacco, cannabis or anything else, to fight off the virus. Putting them at much greater risk of severe illness or even death,” he said.

Levine said there has never been a better time or better reason to quit smoking and vaping. He said people have been told to stay home to help stop the spread of the virus so they have time for something new to focus on, like quitting. Those looking for help to quit smoking can go to www.802quits.org or call 800-QUIT-NOW.

Levine also announced a new state website: www.vthelplink.org for those seeking treatment for drug or alcohol use.

“The global pandemic has not erased the continued urgent need for substance use-related services for Vermonters. In fact, the extraordinary steps required to stop the spread of COVID-19 creates new challenges for people living with substance use disorder to get the services they need,” Levine said.

The website features a call center of trained staff and clinicians where callers can get information, referrals, resources and educational materials on substance use for themselves, family and friends, or on behalf of clients. There is also an online screening tool where residents can learn about available treatment options to meet their needs.

For the most up-to-date information and guidance about COVID-19, including from the CDC, visit healthvermont.gov/covid19

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com


Randy Marshall gets a workout on his longboard on Friday afternoon along Field Days Road in New Haven.

Keeping distance


Covid19
Bare shelves abound during pandemic

Shopping for flour in Rutland last weekend felt like searching for bigfoot — there were several signs that maybe it had once been in the area, but the real thing never seemed to turn up.

Staple foods proved hard to find as panic-buying in response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued, emptying shelves around the area. Social media had been inundated for some time with photos of empty toilet-paper aisles. Almost as bare were sections of supermarkets holding pasta, rice, beans and flour. Meat and frozen vegetables were available, but with a much-reduced supply and variety.

As the week began, there didn’t appear to be a speck of flour for sale in the city.

Kamuda’s Country Market in Pittsford, on the other hand, had what appeared to be a full supply on Monday of King Arthur flour and canned goods as well as a smaller — but better than in Rutland — supply of pasta. The sections for toilet paper and paper towels, though, was as empty as anywhere in the city. A clerk told a customer that he wouldn’t have found the flour, either, if he’d come in the previous day.

At Tenney Brook Market in Rutland, not only wasn’t there any flour, but the bread was almost completely gone. Three packages of hamburger rolls and two of hot dog buns sat on an otherwise empty set of shelves limiting customers to one bread item each.

Such signs are commonplace in area stores. They appeared over the empty Tylenol shelves at Walgreen’s — though Advil, subject to an internet hoax claiming it would worsen coronavirus, was in plentiful supply — the flour section at Tops and cleaning supplies at Wal-Mart.

No sign appeared in a different section of Wal-Mart that had been decimated. Empty shelves pointed to a run on home workout equipment, particularly dumbbells.

All this was week after the first wave of panic buying started — seemingly enough time for stores to restock. A Hannaford employee told a customer during the weekend that staple foods were going out as quick as they came in.

How much pasta should an area store go through on a weekly basis normally?

Nobody seemed to have that data this week. Even if they did, it might provide some context but wouldn’t help fill the shelves, according to Vermont Retail & Grocers Association President Erin Sigrist, because the current circumstances are anything but normal.

“Retailers don’t have the numbers, based on this situation, that direct them how much they should be ordering,” she said. “If we don’t know how much the demand is going to be ... we don’t know how much we’re going to order.”

Sigrist said that the demand has worked its way up the supply chain and farmers are ramping up production, but it takes time for that to show on store shelves. In a perfect world, she said, that would take about two weeks.

“The system needs to reset,” she said. “In order for that to happen, consumers need to reset. I am hopeful things will calm down within the next week, but we’re in uncertain times. People need to take care of themselves and their families, but they also need to take care of their communities.”

Representatives of large grocery chains similarly lacked any detailed data about the supply chain, but offered assurances that shelves would be restocked.

“I can confirm the food supply is not in jeopardy,” said Mona Golub, vice president of public relations for Price Chopper. “We’re not getting 100% of what we’re ordering. Pasta’s being restocked daily. Beans and vegetables are being restocked daily. ... People are definitely reverting to comfort foods and cooking at home, with restaurants closed and school lunches not going on. Baking has surged — that’s why you’re seeing flour disappearing.”

When the shelves return to relative normality, Golub said, will depend on what happens with the spread of the virus.

Similarly, Tops spokeswoman Kathleen Sautter said trucks were continuously shipping to stores as often as they could.

“Because this is a national, as well as international pandemic, all retailers are in the same predicament when it comes to finding product to meet the demand, which means an increased demand on our vendors,” Sautter wrote in an email. “Many manufacturers and suppliers of hand sanitizers, soaps and cleaners do not have much available product to ship at this time. We are working with all of the affected supplier partners on an hourly basis in an effort to re-fill our supply chain and our stores. All product we receive on a daily basis from these manufacturers is being shipped to our stores immediately.”

Tops lifted its limit on milk purchases this week, but the store maintained a long list of restricted items. This included baby formula and wipes, large packs of chicken, cereal, breads and rolls, eggs, flour, bottled water, ground beef, frozen vegetables, laundry detergent, dish detergent and — still — toilet paper.

“I think the best thing for all of us is to step back and get back to purchasing the way we normally do,” Sigrist said.

At least one positive sign appeared on Friday — Wallgreen’s had hand sanitizer on the shelves again, with a limit of two per customer.

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com


News
Calls for help are down but police stay busy

With Vermonters under a directive to stay at home, law-enforcement officers are responding to fewer calls but not staying idle.

Chief Brian Kilcullen, of the Rutland City Police Department, said his department was getting about a third fewer calls than normal, apparently because of Gov. Phil Scott’s orders for Vermonters to stay home and businesses to close in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“Certainly, there’s a lot more opportunity for routine patrolling. Unfortunately, in different times, we don’t always have ample opportunity to do those sorts of things but they’re important to enhance community safety. Our mere presence tends to keep things relatively quiet in most neighborhoods,” he said.

Captain Garry Scott, director of community affairs for the Vermont State Police, said the state’s police force was also seeing a reduced call volume.

“Most of our troopers are covering very large areas anyway as it is. It’s not unusual to only have one or two troopers covering a county especially in the Northeast Kingdom, so I don’t see (a reduction in calls) as being a particular issue,” he said.

Scott said troopers were “ready for this.” He said there had been a lot of information provided to each one about ways to interact with the public and stay sharp as there are fewer requests from the public for services.

“Our troopers pride themselves on being professionals,” Scott added.

Scott said he anticipated troopers would partially be occupied with adjusting to the changes they’re being asked to implement. He said there were many discussions going on with shift commanders, troop commanders and administrators to work out the details.

In addition to the internal changes, troopers have been asked to be thoughtful about making arrests that will bring people into Vermont jails at a time when the goal is to have fewer people sharing an enclosed space.

Scott said VSP officers also were watching their patrol areas to make sure there are not people trying to take advantage of a time when there are fewer people on the street to enlarge the window of opportunity for crime.

Troopers, like Rutland City officers, are spending extra time on patrol.

“We’re communicating to the troopers to be proactive in that approach when they’re out and about. They may not be doing as much proactive motor vehicle work but now this is proactive checking in on businesses, moving around, seeing who’s out and about, keeping that type of visibility enforcement out there,” he said.

Scott said he expected most troopers were handling the changes well. He said they were already used to taking precautions and responding to situations where they could be exposed to bodily fluids and other potential contaminants.

But he acknowledged troopers carry a different burden.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a mental aspect to all of us. This is taking a toll on all of us. We’re out in the public, we’re dealing with members of the public. Then we go home. Are we bringing something home into our home environment? So there’s a lot of mental stress that’s occurring for everybody right now,” he said.

The Rutland City Police and VSP had already made changes to the way they were responding to calls. Law-enforcement agencies remain open and staffed but officers are taking reports by phone and trying to resolve matters without face-to-face responses where appreciate.

Kilcullen said Rutlanders asking for an officer to respond are being asked whether they had any symptoms or risk factors for COVID-19, so officers would know if personal protective equipment would be needed to respond safely.

Dispatchers and officers at Rutland also are asking those people to step outside when speaking to officers in order to observe social-distancing recommendations from state agencies like the Vermont Department of Health and federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scott said troopers are mindful of the changes in Vermont, which he called a “new situation that we’ve never faced before in law enforcement.

“We’re sort of learning as we go in some parts but we are expecting our troopers to be very visible and out and about and the public to see them and understanding now that a high number of Vermonters have lost their jobs very rapidly (and) they’re being isolated into their homes. That’s going to create a lot of stress. We completely understand that that is happening,” he said.

Troopers have been encouraged to relax proactive motor vehicle enforcement, but to continue responding as normal to egregious driving.

But both Kilcullen and Scott said Vermonters should be assured that in case of an emergency or a danger to the public, police would be responding in person.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com


Ap
Trump signs $2.2T stimulus after swift congressional votes

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an unprecedented $2.2 trillion economic rescue package into law Friday, after swift and near-unanimous action by Congress to support businesses, rush resources to overburdened health care providers and help struggling families during the deepening coronavirus epidemic.

Acting with unity and resolve unseen since the 9/11 attacks, Washington moved urgently to stem an economic free fall caused by widespread restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus that has shuttered schools, closed businesses and brought American life in many places to a virtual standstill.

“This will deliver urgently needed relief,” Trump said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office, flanked only by Republican lawmakers. He thanked members of both parties for putting Americans “first.”

Earlier Friday, the House gave near-unanimous approval by voice vote after an impassioned session conducted along the social distancing guidelines imposed by the crisis. Many lawmakers sped to Washington to participate — their numbers swollen after a maverick Republican signaled he’d try to force a roll call vote — though dozens of others remained safely in their home districts.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously late Wednesday.

“Today, we’ve all acknowledged our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She said Americans deserve a full-on government response “to address these threats to their lives and their livelihood and they need it now.”

The $2.2 trillion legislation will speed government payments of $1,200 to most Americans and increase jobless benefits for millions of people thrown out of work. Businesses big and small will get loans, grants and tax breaks. It will send unprecedented billions to states and local governments, and the nation’s all but overwhelmed health care system.


Work along the Middlebury Bridge & Rail Project in Middlebury along the Western Rail Corridor has been halted until at least April 15 because of Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order halting virtually all construction projects in Vermont on Wednesday.

Rail work halted


News
Domestic violence advocates still at work

While Vermonters are being directed to stay home in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, there remain staff and resources available for those who are victims of sexual or domestic violence and those who want to escape an abusive relationships.

Avaloy Lanning, executive director of NewStory Center in Rutland, said there is “a lot going on in the community to work with folks and to mobilize the resources that are available.”

Lanning said all of NewStory’s resources, including court advocacy, sexual assault advocacy, emergency shelter, food pantry and case management services.

“All of those things are still available, they just look a little different than they have in the past,” she said.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network, said, “every single domestic and sexual violence organization is open for business.”

She said organizations like NewStory, which is a member of the Network, were doing a “really remarkable” job of transforming the ways they operate in order to respond to the need to protect staff and clients from exposure to the virus.

Like many organizations, NewStory and other agencies that help victims of domestic and sexual violence are speaking with those who need services over the phone or by electronic means. But sometimes those victims need services like shelters.

Lanning said she doesn’t want anyone to feel there isn’t an avenue of safety still for them because the avenue still exists but “maybe we have to get a little more creative with our exit strategy planning.”

“I do want people who are in abusive relationships, who are thinking about leaving, to know that NewStory and other domestic and sexual violence service providers around the state are still running. We are still here to provide all of the services we’ve always provided and we are still available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is still emergency housing available. There is still the opportunity to file for a relief from abuse order. There are still opportunities to speak with advocates and plan for safety,” she said.

In a news release, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan stated it was “important for Vermonters to remember that not every home situation is safe.”

“Self-isolation does not mean that you are alone. Local programs and law enforcement agencies are here to help. I encourage all Vermonters who are worried about having to self-isolate in a dangerous home situation to reach out,” Donovan said in a statement.

Tronsgard-Scott said the organizations were working in collaboration with Vermont state agencies like the health department to be sure they are complying with social-distancing recommendations and the Office of Economic Opportunity to be sure people who need shelter can get it.

Right now, Tronsgard-Scott said, some Vermont communities are experiencing an increase in the request for services, some are seeing a decrease and some aren’t seeing any substantial changes but advocates are expecting increased demand, especially now that the governor has ordered schools to close through the end of the current term.

“We anticipate that we’re going to see a significant increase in the number of calls to the hotline and the need for services This is what’s been happening in Washington state so we think we’re going to follow that pattern here,” she said.

She said the network is convening its member agencies up to five times a week to plan for the expected spike, to share what resources are available and to hear from staff in the field about any needs that can be passed along.

“Everybody from the governor to the president pro tem to the speaker of the House to individuals legislators, everybody’s been asking us, ‘How can we make sure that domestic violence survivors get everything they need?’ So the folks in those positions are really thoughtful and asking the questions of the people like the staff at the NewStory Center,” Tronsgard-Scott said.

Lanning said in Rutland County, groups like the United Way, Project VISION, BROC-Community Action in Southwestern Vermont and the Homeless Prevention Center are working with staff from NewStory on proposing solutions.

Lanning said she and other advocates have concerns about the volatility of families living unexpectedly in confined spaces and facing economic hardship.

“Any added stressor is always a concern and certainly families and household relationships are under a great deal of strain currently that’s not something any of us could have planned for or anticipated. I just hope that (your) readers and the community know that there are safe places for them to go, safe places for people to turn. There is assistance available and ongoing and a lot people in our community that want to help until all of us can get back to some kind of normalcy,” she said.

There are numerous resources available for survivors at the local and national level. They include:

Vermont Network website: vtnetwork.org/covid-19-update.

Vermont Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-228-7395.

Vermont Sexual Violence Hotline: 800-489-7273.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.

If you’re unable to speak safely, log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

If you are in an emergency situation, call 911.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com


Rail topper

Global outbreaks

Death on rampage in Italy and Spain, new outbreaks across the United States, as number of COVID-19 victims worldwide tops a half million. B6


Weekender rail

Telehealth

In response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, the University of Vermont Health Network and Washington County Mental Health Services have ramped up telehealth services to increase their capacity to serve patients remotely. B3