COVID-19 roundup: Vermont eases guidelines a bit for holiday gatherings

Staff and Wire Reports
Published: 12/22/2020 9:16:21 PM
Modified: 12/22/2020 9:16:19 PM

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced a slight relaxation of the restrictions on social gatherings to allow two trusted households to gather over the holidays as the state’s coronavirus case numbers have stabilized, although they are still higher than the administration would like to see.

“It’s been a little over a month since we took significant steps to slow the rising spread of the virus. And it’s clearly working,” Scott said at his bi-weekly virus briefing on Friday.

The state has seen several days of fewer than 100 cases, which is still high but shows vast improvement, he said.

Gathering with only one other trusted household will be allowed from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, with other stringent measures still in place, Scott said. Gathering with more than one trusted household on different days is not permitted, he said. And if one of the two households is from out of state, everyone must quarantine for seven days and get a negative test or quarantine for 14 days afterward, he said.

There is a risk of virus transmission when people gather, especially indoors without masks, he said. Following the state’s guidance, being smart and using common sense is the best way to limit the risk, he said.

“While we’re providing a narrow path to very small holiday gatherings, you really need to think about whether it fits your family or your situation, especially if you’re over 65, have preexisting conditions or work with vulnerable populations such as in health care,” Scott said.

Scott also announced that residents may participate in outdoor recreation with others outside of

their households provided that they can physically distance and wear a mask.

“But you’ve got to follow the ‘arrive, play, leave’ approach, meaning mingling afterwards is not allowed,” he said. “You don’t have to look any further than the hockey outbreak in central Vermont to see how dangerous one tailgate party can be.”

Starting on Dec. 26, school-based and youth recreational sports teams may begin practices with skills, strength and conditioning drills with no contact and physically distancing and mask-wearing at all times, Scott said. Adult recreational leagues and spectators are still prohibited.

Twin State lawmakers laud stimulus package

Now that the distribution of two vaccines for COVID-19 has begun, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said on Tuesday.

In the meantime, Welch said during a news conference with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress on Monday is aimed at making sure small businesses such as restaurants and nonprofits can make it to the end.

The package, which includes continuing boosting unemployment at a rate of $300 per week for another 10 weeks, will prevent 12,000 unemployed Vermonters from losing expanded unemployment benefits, Welch said.

Welch and other members of the Twin States’ Congressional delegations also lauded money included in the package for expanding broadband, as well as food and rental assistance.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., celebrated Congress’s passage of a $2.3 trillion omnibus appropriations package that included the COVID-19 relief funds. Leahy, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a news release highlighted investments in Lake Champlain, food systems research and addressing the opioid epidemic.

The bill includes $15 million for the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, which is $1.5 million more than fiscal year 2020. It also includes $11 million, a $6 million increase over fiscal year 2020, for a Food Systems Center at the University of Vermont, which is used for research about local, regional and global food systems. The bill also includes $10 million for three Rural Centers of Excellence on Substance Use Disorders, including one hosted by UVM and the UVM Medical Center, which supports evidence-based methods to address the opioid epidemic in rural communities.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in a news release, underscored the support for small businesses included in the relief package, including $284 billion to extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which so far has benefited nearly 25,000 New Hampshire small businesses and non-profits that have received over $2.5 billion in PPP assistance.

Shaheen also celebrated the inclusion of $4.25 billion in funding for substance use disorder treatment and mental health care, as well as $13 billion for food assistance and another $13 billion for agriculture and fisheries. Of the $300 million for fisheries, New Hampshire is slated to receive $3 million, she said.

In addition to the COVID-19 relief, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., also noted the inclusion of a provision aimed at putting an end to what are known as “surprise medical bills,” such as when patients who thought their insurance coverage was adequate face thousands of dollars in bills from an emergency room provider who is “out of network” in terms of coverage.

“This package will also help end the outrageous and unfair practice of surprise medical billing, something I’ve been working on with Republican Senator Bill Cassidy (of Louisiana) for two years,” she said in a news release.

MAH sees increase in opioid-related cases

WINDSOR — Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Twin States continue to struggle with an opioid epidemic. Through October of this year, Vermont saw 123 opioid-related deaths, with Windsor County seeing 21 of those; the highest number for any county in the state.

“My heart breaks,” said Jill Lord, director of community health at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, in a news release. “This is not where we want to be. We identified we had a problem several years ago, but COVID-19 has had an impact.”

Mt. Ascutney, where emergency department providers have seen more opioid-related health issues in recent months, offers medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and gives out the opioid reversal drug Naloxone for free, according to the release.

To provide MAT, Mt. Ascutney has been working with the Windsor-based addiction treatment center Connecticut Valley Addiction Recovery since last year. Patients can receive their first dose of Suboxone, also known as buprenorphine, in the emergency department and then get a referral to follow up with CVAR the next day.

“If we see anybody who has a potential for needing any kind of drug or alcohol treatment, but especially now, opioid treatment, we engage in motivational interviewing,” said Dr. Rick Marasa, medical director of emergency services at Mt. Ascutney. “We get an idea of where they are with recovery, and make some suggestions.”

Most recovered in Hanover Terrace outbreak

HANOVER — One Hanover Terrace resident remains ill in the outbreak there which has included a total of 105 people.

In total, the outbreak has included 68 residents, seven of whom have died. It also has included 35 employees, 26 of which had recovered as of Tuesday, said Martha Ilsley, Hanover Terrace’s administrator. Two essential workers employed by an outside vendor also have recovered. Five residents have not tested positive.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the nursing home was still awaiting results from testing of all employees on Monday.

Ilsley said she is grateful to the staff, the community and medical providers from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for their help and support in getting to this point.

First doses of vaccine from Moderna arrive in NH

CONCORD — New Hampshire’s first shipment of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine have arrived, and will be split between hospitals and sites serving other health care providers and first responders, officials said Tuesday.

The 13 sites, along with mobile units, will start offering vaccines Dec. 29, said Beth Daly, chief of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease Control. In addition to 24,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine, the state was allocated 8,875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week, with most of those going to nursing homes, she said.

While the numbers are in flux, the state expects to get about 9,000 doses of each vaccine each week. Officials hope provide the initial shots to the 100,000 people in the first priority group — health care workers, nursing home residents and staff and first responders — by the end of January, she said.

“It’s going to take us several months to get all who want to be vaccinated vaccinated, and this means we must remain vigilant in the steps we take as individuals to prevent COVID-19,” she said.

Daly said the Department of Health and Human Services is working with first responder agencies to register workers for the vaccine, and will communicate more broadly when it is ready to begin vaccinating ambulatory care providers.

For future phases, there also will be detailed communication about eligibility and an online registration process, she said.

Mass. limits businesses, delays elective surgeries

Many Massachusetts businesses will be limited to 25% capacity and hospitals have been directed to postpone nonessential surgeries starting the day after Christmas to help curb an anticipated increase in new coronavirus cases after the holiday that could swamp the state’s health care system, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday.

In addition, social gatherings will be limited to 10 people inside and 25 people outside, the Republican governor said at a news conference.

The new restrictions take effect Saturday and are scheduled to run for two weeks.

Baker also urged people to avoid large family gatherings at Christmas to prevent a surge in new cases that the state saw after Thanksgiving.

“Together, the intent of these restrictions will be to pause activity and reduce mobility so we can reduce the spread of the virus without closing our schools or our businesses,” he said.

Doctors, public health officials and some lawmakers have been pressuring the governor to take even stronger steps, including ending indoor restaurant dining, as cases surge.

The rules will create what Baker called a “bridge” to widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the first doses of which have already been administered to 26,000 workers in health care settings.

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