MONTPELIER — State officials are hoping to announce next week where increased COVID-19 testing will be offered in Bennington County, where community spread of the virus remains a serious concern.
As of Friday, the state Department of Health reported that Bennington County had 312 cases in the past 14 days, and 26 new cases. Those 312 cases are second only to far more populous Chittenden County.
Of the state’s 107 new cases on Friday, about one out of four are in Bennington County, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Friday.
While there’s a slight decrease in the region’s numbers, and cases at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center have stabilized, “Bennington County looks so much different than the State of Vermont in terms of the curve of active cases,” Levine said during a briefing on the state’s COVID-19 response.
The region’s figures are likely influenced by cases in nearby New York state, where many Bennington County workers live, and possibly by transmission at ski areas, Levine said.
“But I must stress the majority is just plain community transmission at worksites and in the community,” he said.
As of Friday, Rensselaer County, N.Y., had a positivity rate of 3.3 percent and 52 new positives, while Washington County, N. Y. had a positivity rate of 2.6 percent and 38 new positives, according to New York state’s county-by-county COVID map.
Meanwhile, the state is “engaging the ski industry” in hopes of expanding testing, including the possibility of PCR testing in ski area host towns for employees and guests, Levine said.
Testing is the first step in the effort to limit the spread of the virus, Levine said.
“We want all residents of [Bennington County] to have ready access to this opportunity to help themselves and their communities,” Levine said.
In addition, residents should pay attention to following the guidance: wearing masks, avoiding crowds, social distancing of 6 feet, and staying home when you feel sick.
Testing is vital because many who have spread the virus have done so without having any symptoms, Levine added. “What you don’t know, you don’t know,” he said.
“I want to urge people in Bennington County, as sites are announced, if you have second thoughts you may actually want to get tested,” he said. “It’s part of our strategy of helping the county reduce the impact.”
Agency of Education Secretary Daniel French said a survey of school building principals found deep concerns about the number of students who are falling behind or tuning out school, and becoming more difficult to reach.
“The longer this goes on the more students have drifted away,” said French, who is collecting the data as the state considers its school recovery plan. “This has profound considerations for academic growth.”
French said 58 building principals responded to the survey, and results naturally varied. But a number of themes developed, including students having more difficulty with social interaction.
One principal reported students have become more passive learners, making inquiry-based learning difficult.
“Physical distancing has become emotional distancing,” the principal said, according to French.
Attendance and truancy have become a significant issue in some districts, French said, and high-achieving students are having trouble with stress and anxiety.
“We are very fortunate we live in a state that prioritized keeping our schools open. That said we have a lot of work to do,” French said. “We need to understand the impacts so we can prioritize our response.”
For students who have dropped below the radar, “We need to act with some urgency to reengage them,” he said.
NOT SO SUPER
Levine and Gov. Phil Scott both warned against multi-family gatherings for Sunday’s Super Bowl game, warning that such gatherings pose a threat to the progress the state has made in recovering from the holiday surge in COVID-19 cases.
Scott said this not the year for a typical Super Bowl party. “The risk is too high and multifamily gatherings are not allowed,” he said. “Please follow the guidance. The last thing we want to do is move backwards.”
“It might seem like a more minor event but it has potential to truly damage the recent progress we made here if we don’t celebrate safely,” Levine said.
And for those who think the warning is an overreaction? “I want to remind you it was Halloween gatherings and parties that really drove the beginning of the uptick of cases three months ago,” Levine said.
As of Friday morning, the state had delivered 58,219 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said, including 33,700 first doses and 24,500 second doses. As of Friday, 21 percent of the 75-and-older age band had received their first dose, Smith said, and 33,100 of those eligible had registered for the vaccine.
Eligible Vermonters may register for an appointment at https://www.healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine or by calling 855-722-7878.
Smith also announced that vaccinations for homebound Vermonters will begin this coming week in Windham, Caledonia, Franklin, Orange and Windsor counties. He said the state is working to set up home vaccination programs in Bennington and Rutland counties and the remainder of the state, and hopes to announce details on those visits next week.
Scott said he had reached out by phone to state Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer about conducting a performance audit of how some tax forms prepared by the Department of Labor were mailed with other people’s personally identifiable information. He said Hoffer “graciously” expressed his willingness to help.
While human error was the apparent cause of the breach, which has forced the state to recall thousands of 1099-G forms and then reprint and resend corrected versions, “that doesn’t excuse that we didn’t have the controls in place to find that,” Scott said.
Wednesday, Scott appointed one of his trusted advisers, former state Sen. Dustin Degree, as deputy labor commissioner, and named a pair of task forces led by top administration officials, including deputy chief of staff Brittany Wilson and legal counsel Jaye Pershing Johnson, to lead the effort.
Asked what that means for Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington, Scott said the Bennington native is “at the wheel here” and that the intent was to send him help. “Nothing has changed … I still have faith in his ability,” Scott said of Harrington. “We need to focus on the problem at hand and fix it now. .. we will contemplate other actions later on, depending on what we find.”
Scott also apologized to all impacted by the breach. “This was something that shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We are going to make this right.”