Islander Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Gov. Phil Scott said Friday that he is going to start lifting his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order to allow for the gradual return of small groups of employees – one or two person operations – on Monday and is working on farmers markets resuming on May 1.
The first step comes as Interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington reported his department is receiving hundreds of thousands phone calls -- up to 600,000 -- per week. Vermonters have been complaining for several weeks about the inability to get in touch with the Labor Department to file for unemployment compensation, ask questions or resolve claims. Calls are going unanswered, placed on permanent hold or getting lost, Vermonters have reported.
Harrington said he did not know how many people were represented by all the “pings.”
He said some pings may include robocalls that are now blocked.
The Islander and other media outlets are getting many complaints from people unable to reach the Labor Department or settle pending issues.
“Getting through to claims line (is) a full time job. Literally thousands of calls and no success,” one frustrated reader wrote Friday to The Islander. “Both of us – one on cell phone and the other on land line – nonstop all day for a week. No success. Frustrating.”
Under questioning Harrington admitted he has not worked at the call center to hear concerns first hand from the frustrated Vermonters.
Harrington also said he has declined to take up an offer by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero to have 150 state representatives, who are getting paid, to handle some of the incoming calls or to ease the logjam when they have free time.
Harrington also said he had no plans to step aside in favor of somebody that might be able to better address the logjam.
Except for the Labor Department, Scott and the rest of his cabinet have been getting high grades for their work over the past 5 or 6 weeks on the deadly COVID-19 virus.
Scott did say he gave Harrington until late Saturday night to get the backlog resolved. If that fails, Scott said he has directed the state beginning Sunday to cut $1,200 checks for each Vermonter with an unresolved claim in recent weeks. Scott said the state will settle up later on the final claims.
Scott said in a news release that he has directed the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to issue guidance authorizing outdoor businesses and construction operations with crews of two or less and some single-person low contact professional services, such as attorneys, realtors, appraisers and others, to operate if specified safety requirements can be met.
He also is giving a green light for municipal clerks that closed their government offices to resume public hours. A large number of municipal clerks have continued to do their work behind locked doors. Drop boxes for tax payments, dog license renewals and other requirements were used. Now the clerks are allowed to deal with one customer at a time, Scott said.
The state’s latest study shows the growth rate in new COVID-19 cases has averaged below 4% for the last 12 days, the rate at which cases double has slowed dramatically, and the number of people requiring hospitalizations remains stable.
Scott also is giving Farmer’s Markets the go ahead to resume on Friday May 1. He said the Agency of Agriculture will develop guidelines so farmers can sell their products. The governor hinted that opening weeks may not be the traditional gatherings with neighbors congregating. It may be more like curb service now offered by local general stores.
The governor said the was willing to begin turning the spigot because Vermonters have taken the COVID-19 virus seriously and stayed at home as requested.
“We’re seeing some promising results and continue to trend below even the best-case scenarios predicted in recent forecasting. This is all a result of the hard work and sacrifice of Vermonters across the state, and I can’t thank you enough,” Scott said.
“These forecasts show we can continue to slow the number of new COVID-19 cases if we continue to stay vigilant, meaning staying home, avoiding large gatherings, staying six feet away from others, using a cloth face covering when in public and washing our hands,” the Governor added. “But what these trends also show is that with the right precautions, we can take small steps to get more Vermonters back to work and avoid a spike in cases that would put lives at risk.”
Gov. Scott outlined a measured, phased approach to reopen the economy - balancing the need to improve overall social and economic wellbeing with the need to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 outbreaks.
The order, and a corresponding guidance memo from ACCD, detail specific measures for those businesses authorized to reopen to ensure continued social distancing. Applying these measures, it also clarifies guidance to allow more retail operations to operate through phone-in or online ordering, and curbside pickup or delivery.
The Governor also outlined five principles, developed in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Health, the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), ACCD and others, which will guide the state’s Restart Vermont planning and decision-making process. They are:
“Preventing outbreaks and limiting the spread of COVID-19 is the only way to avoid future business and social disruption,” Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said in her memo to Vermont businesses.
“The success of this phased restart will depend in large part on the ability of employers and employees to adhere to the public health, safety and social distancing measures essential to limiting the spread of illness.”
The administration will continue to update the public on the RestartVT planning process as details and next steps are determined.
Gov. Scott helps create economic recovery task force
MONTPELIER – Gov. Phil Scott and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) today announced the establishment of a state Economic Mitigation & Recovery Task Force to help with the impact from the deadly COVID-19 virus and restoring the economy.
Gov. Scott said he wants the task force to provide technical assistance and expertise to mitigate the devastating short-term economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and develop strategies designed to speed long-term business and community recovery.
Scott said the task force – which consists of three independent teams -- is comprised of job creators, community leaders and business representatives from each region of the state.
There are no members from Grand Isle County.
“This is a task force, not an advisory committee and that’s a very important distinction because they will be doing the work of helping Vermont employers across the state,” Scott said.
“These individuals are willing to roll up their sleeves and lend their vast expertise and skill to increase the capacity of our state response as we take on the significant challenge of restarting our economy in the weeks and months ahead.”
The task force is made up of three action teams:
-- The Employer Financial and Technical Support team will focus on increasing financial and technical support capacity for small and large businesses.
-- The Local Support and Community Action team will interface with local groups to learn what is being done on the ground in communities and what can be replicated and shared statewide. That team will also identify gaps in recovery efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources, especially in rural areas and underserved populations.
-- The RestartVT Team will help develop plans for the smooth, safe and orderly reopening of the economy in concert with the State Emergency Operations Center and the Department of Health.
“We are grateful to these Vermont business and community leaders who have signed on to help us navigate this unprecedented time in our history,” ACCD Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said. “We will need to lean more than ever on fresh ideas and unique solutions, as we address the challenges ahead for our economy. This task force will help us do just that.”
The action teams are supported by ACCD Deputy Secretary Ted Brady, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein, Housing & Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford and public affairs expert and small business owner Dennise Casey.
For a full list of the Task Force members and action team rosters, please visit: https://accd.vermont.gov/covid-19/economic-mitigation-and-recovery-task-force.
By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
A veteran corrections officer at the St. Albans prison, who has tested positive for the deadly COVID-19 virus is offering daily podcasts and videos with updates on his health condition while also pumping out musical tunes for his loyal listeners and friends as he lives out his self-quarantine.
Matthew Engels, a shift supervisor at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town, is among 16 staffers and 33 inmates to test positive for the deadly virus at the prison.
“I could have caught it anywhere,” Engels said in a newspaper interview.
Engels said he had no sense of the virus being present before his nasal swab test, which he noted was unforgettable.
“It goes way up your nose. I thought it was touching my brain,” Engels said in the phone interview.
He learned he was positive last Thursday and was sent home for 14 days.
Engels said he remains in self-isolation at his Franklin County home.
His wife, Katie, learned on Sunday that she tested negative for the virus. His wife was sent home from her job until she could be tested, Engels said.
They live in a large Victorian home so they are still keeping their social distance, he said.
Engels said he also knows that his illness is not as bad as some people have experienced.
Engels said he had felt a small cough, but had no real symptoms associated with COVID-19 until this past weekend.
By Saturday night Engels thought he had lost his sense of smell. As a test, he put some men’s cologne in his hand and sniffed. There was no smell, he said.
By the next day, Easter Sunday, his sense of taste also was gone.
He has no temperature and his eating habits have changed.
“The COVID diet is fairly effective. I’ve lost like six pounds so far,” he said Monday.
Engels said he doesn’t crave for food, but has been living on some grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup.
He said his daily update videos, which last up to 2½ minutes, are designed to help him check in with friends, co-workers and others – and reduce the number of repeated questions. The videos also are educational because he shares information with people that may be wondering about the deadly virus.
Engels said some of the other prison staff that tested positive are sharing among themselves their stories, symptoms and conditions to see if they are having the same experiences.
“It’s a good way to check in on one another,” said Engels, who grew up in Williston. “It’s a well-being thing.”
Engels, 52, had worked at several jobs -- journalist, bartender, disk jockey and at IBM -- before settling in with the Vermont Corrections Department more than 12 years ago.
He has been honored multiple times with the “Preservation of Life”’ award from the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Engels, who graduated with a journalism degree from St. Michael’s College, said some of his time is filled reading and watching documentaries.
He said a Vermont Health Department worker also checked in early on to see how he was doing and if he was keeping his social distancing.
He has cranked out at least 70 musical podcasts on Hair One and still shows a sense of humor. When his test came back positive on April 9, he did a podcast that day and dubbed it, “Got Them COVID Blues.” The podcast featured Blues music -- classic, rock and contemporary, he said.
Engels pumped out a two-hour Doo Wop show on Sunday complete with background information.
“It’s always more than the music,” says Engels, a huge Green Bay Packers fan. The backdrop to his videos are filled with Packers swag.
His daily podcasts about his condition also offer a reminder to wash hands and to keep the proper distance.
Editor’s note: Writer Mike Donoghue has known Matthew Engels for over 30 years. Engels is a former student in a Media Law class taught by Donoghue as an adjunct professor of journalism at St. Michael’s College for many years.
Gov. Phil Scott (left) was on hand when Shift Supervisor Matthew Engels (in uniform) received a Preservation of Life Award from the Department of Corrections last June. Former Agency of Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille (right) and former DOC Commissioner Mike Touchette also attended. The award, which also went to two other co-workers, recognizes a DOC employee who takes spontaneous action in response to a life-threatening illness or injury to a staff member, inmate or member of the public.
By MIKE DONOGHUE,
Islander Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS -- Two more staff members at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town have tested positive for COVID-19, the Vermont Corrections Department said Saturday evening.
Test results are pending for nine other prison staff members in St. Albans.
That means 32 inmates and 16 staffers have positive tests that were provided earlier this week after one inmate tested positive on April 8.
The Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) and Department of Health worked to test 328 inmates and staff at the Northwest State Correctional Facility (NWSCF).
In an effort to thwart the spread of the virus, DOC prepared to use the Northeast Correctional Complex (NECC) as a surge location for inmates who test positive.
The department sent 28 out of the 29 inmates with the positive tests to NECC in St. Johnsbury. One inmate, who was facing disciplinary issues, remained in isolation in St. Albans, DOC said.
Three other inmates with more recent positive tests remain at NWSCF in negative pressure rooms.
The prison staff that tested positive were directed to quarantine at home or are able to self-quarantine at an isolation site arranged by the state in Chittenden County.
“We have been carefully monitoring the spread of the virus and made preparations for a surge location,” Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker said.
“The situation changes by the hour, and while we hoped we would never have to use the surge location, on Thursday we put our plan into action and moved the appropriate inmates to NECC,” he said.
Baker said on Friday that the department is making staffing adjustments to ensure that there is proper coverage inside the prison.
The Corrections Department worked with the legislature since last month to set up the St. Johnsbury surge site. The St. Johnsbury prison allowed the DOC to provide single-bed cells for impacted inmates and for medical staffing.
The 65 inmates who were previously in the work camp portion of the facility, were relocated to other facilities across the state, prior to any COVID positive inmates arriving from NWSCF.
The 28 inmates from St. Albans moved to NECC are showing no signs of the disease, the DOC said. None of the inmates require hospital level of care.
If inmates placed at NECC develop symptoms that require hospital level care they will be transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center instead of being sent locally to the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury.
Consistent with the plans put in place in consultation with the Vermont Department of Health (VDH), the St. Johnsbury staff has been trained in protocols to mitigate any spread to staff when interacting with the COVID positive inmates, the DOC said.
The staff at NECC have personal protective equipment (PPE) and have created different areas across the facility where PPE is and isn't required to be worn, the DOC said in a news release.
Those steps are designed for the health and safety of the staff and inmates, the DOC said. It will also allow staff to have spaces to take a break and not need to wear PPE.
Staff and inmates have been provided protective masks and everyone inside the facilities will be required to wear a mask at all times.
By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS TOWN -- The number of positive tests at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town has increased to 32 inmates and 14 staff members, the Vermont Corrections Department reported on Friday afternoon.
The news came several hours after Gov. Phil Scott announced the extension to his Vermont State of Emergency declaration through May 15. The order, which had been expected to expire next Wednesday, April 15, covers all corresponding orders and directives issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last Friday, under questioning from The Islander, Scott had disclosed the extension was coming, but declined to say for how long. Scott said he wanted to get the latest information about when the deadly virus would peak in Vermont. Vermont schools also remain dismissed for in-person instruction through the end of the academic year.
The Governor said today it remains essential for people to stay at home, but he did agree to allow the hotel and lodging industry to begin taking reservations for guests and events for June 15 and later. That is good news for the Champlain Islands, which depends on the tourist and wedding trade.
Scott also agreed to extend for 60 days the motor vehicle inspections that are due by the end of this month because people are expected to stay inside under his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order.
(See the post below from earlier today on The Islander website about Scott’s extension order.)
Vermont’s Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said the new test numbers for inmates and staff reflect the latest information the state had received. He said the state had conducted 328 tests on inmates and staff at the St. Albans Town prison after an inmate tested positive earlier this week. He said results are still needed for a small number of pending tests.
The state had reported 29 inmates initially had tested positive at the prison as of Thursday afternoon.
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Friday that 28 had been transferred to a St. Johnsbury prison that was set up to handle prisoners that had tested positive. He said one inmate remained at St. Albans in isolation due to a discipline issue.
The three additional inmates that tested positive also have been placed in isolation in St. Albans.
The prison staff members that tested positive have been directed to stay at home in self-quarantine or the state has been willing to put them up at a hotel.
Baker said none of the inmates have exhibited any signs that they need hospitalization.
He did say one staff member at the St. Albans had a serious episode and that the state was “fearful we were going to lose him” last weekend.
Baker did not identify the staff member, but paid honor to him and his family for the sacrifice.
“He is doing much better,” Baker said.
The St. Johnsbury prison is an 80-bed facility and Baker said it can handle up to 55 patients medically during the COVID-19 crisis. The state began to ship inmates out of that facility in March when it became apparent that the department would need a surge site.
The St. Albans prison remains on lockdown, which means that inmates remain in their cells and they have meals and medications delivered to them, Baker said. The other Vermont prisons are in modified lockdown, which means the inmates are allowed out of their cells in small numbers for short periods while keeping social distances.
Baker also explained that the COVID-19 tests were relayed by Vermont State Police and Massachusetts State Police to a lab in Boston to allow for the quick turn around on the results.
(Check back regularly for daily news updates on the impact the COVID-19 virus is having on the Grand Isle County area.)
MONTPELIER – With all the sacrifices Vermonters are making to keep themselves and others healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking extra steps to ensure that no one has to wonder if their water is safe to drink.
DEC is working with drinking water system operators, providing guidance and support for disinfection procedures to keep drinking water safe and free of pathogens. COVID-19 is not transmitted through drinking water, however, it is important to make sure drinking water is free of other pathogens that can cause illness.
“For people who have or are at risk for COVID-19, it’s important to make sure their immune systems are not further compromised due to other pathogens that may be present in drinking water,” said DEC Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division Assistant Director Ellen Parr Doering. “Vermont’s public drinking water systems are designed to deliver safe drinking water. Especially during times of crisis like the pandemic, we are doing everything we can to protect the public health. Disinfecting systems will safeguard drinking water. These are extra steps we are taking. Residents can and should continue to use and drink water from the tap as usual.”
The Department required all community and public water systems to disinfect their water. Disinfecting, rather than more frequent testing, provides another layer of protection for Vermonters in case essential water system operators become ill, a concern when many water systems in Vermont only have a single operator.
Water is disinfected through a process called chlorination where chlorine is added to the water in low doses to kill pathogens that can affect human health. This process can also occur using ultraviolet disinfection. There is no additional testing at the tap required as a result of disinfection.
For private wells, no extra precautions are advised in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Health Department recommends bacteria testing once a year. For instructions on how to test your well, go to https://www.healthvermont.gov/environment/drinking-water.
The requirement for public water systems to provide continuous disinfection will stand until the end of the Governor's Emergency Declaration. Currently that is anticipated to be May 15, 2020, however, it may be extended as necessary. Drinking water operations are an essential function during this declared state of emergency, and water system operators continue to do all the required testing to ensure public water remains safe.
For more information, please see the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division’s COVID-19 response page at dec.vermont.gov/water/COVID-19-Response-and-Resources.
For up-to-date COVID-19 information and guidance, go to healthvermont.gov/covid19.
Montpelier, Vt.—Governor Phil Scott and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) today announced the official launch of a new online system for license renewals. This new service comes at a critical time for Vermonters and dovetails with the Governor’s March 18 directive for the DMV to transition to online, mail and phone transactions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“I appreciate the work of the DMV, and so many across state government, to continue to provide critical services to Vermonters throughout the COVID-19 public health crisis,” said Governor Scott. “Online license renewals allow Vermonters to maintain valid licenses and IDs while promoting social distancing practices and going forward this provides Vermonters with a significant convenience.”
The DMV strongly encourages Vermonters to renew online using the simple form. Renewal notices will continue to be mailed to all license holders and will include the URL for the online service and a unique PIN needed for the online form. The online renewal form can be found at mydmvlicense.vermont.gov/ with online support available through the DMV website.
“This is a key step forward in the modernization of DMV services for Vermonters,” said DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli. “The option to renew online will ease the process for many customers and will result in greater efficiency and cost savings for the state.”
The DMV switched to a new license and identification card system in the summer of 2019. The new credentials have advanced security features to help prevent fraud and identity theft and are printed off-site at a highly secure facility. Online license renewals will be processed by the DMV and the data will be transmitted to the printing facility. Vermonters will receive the new license or ID in the mail 7-10 business days after the DMV submits the renewal for printing. For more information, please visit dmv.vermont.gov/faq.
Extends State of Emergency and All Existing Mitigation Orders and Closures until May 15
Montpelier, Vt. – Governor Phil Scott today extended Vermont’s State of Emergency through May 15, which also extends the expiration date of all corresponding orders and directives issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original State of Emergency, issued on March 13, was set to expire on April 15, as were the subsequent mitigation measures. As a result of this extension, all measures, including the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order, are now in effect until midnight on May 15 (note, schools remain dismissed for in-person instruction through the end of the school year).
“These are incredibly difficult times, and I know this extension is disappointing news for many. But the fact is, Vermonters are literally saving hundreds of lives by staying home,” said Governor Scott. “We are making big sacrifices to save lives, but we cannot let our foot off the gas just yet. We will continue to watch the trends, and as soon as the data shows a downward trend, we can open the spigot, a quarter turn at a time, to get folks back to work in a way that’s responsible and safe. Please know, I will work every hour of every day, for as long as it takes, to see Vermont through this and to help rebuild stronger than we were before.”
The Scott administration developed and continues to update state-specific modeling to project COVID-19 case growth and track capacity of the healthcare system and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and life-saving equipment like ventilators. This data, along with guidance from public health experts at the Vermont Department of Health, has informed the mitigation measures put in place throughout this crisis.
Modeling shows that the mitigation measures have slowed the expected spread of this contagious disease but that the state has not yet hit its peak number of cases. Accordingly, Governor Scott, in consultation with Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, has extended the State of Emergency and all associated social distancing measures.
In addition to extending the State of Emergency, this order addresses several technical changes and clarifications:
Since declaring a State of Emergency in mid-March, the Governor has directed a number of strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19, including visitor restrictions for long-term care and other health facilities; the closure of bars and restaurants, schools and day care centers and close contact businesses; limiting the size of mass gatherings; postponing all non-essential medical procedures; issuing a Stay Home, Stay Safe order; closing in-person operations for most businesses; implementing travel restrictions and a 14-day quarantine for those entering Vermont from other states; and more.
Click here to view the full order.
For more information on the Governor’s actions, visit governor.vermont.gov/covid19response. For the latest information and guidance relating to COVID-19, visit http://www.healthvermont.gov/covid19.
By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS TOWN -- Five staff members and 28 inmates at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town tested positive for the deadly COVID-19 virus on Thursday, the Vermont Department of Corrections announced this evening.
The 28 inmates are being transferred to the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury for isolation and treatment, Corrections Commissioner James Baker said in a news release.
The five staff members will be quarantined and not report to work, Baker said.
The announcement comes one day after the state confirmed one inmate had tested positive for the deadly virus at the prison on Lower Newton Road. Earlier three staff members had tested positive also.
The Vermont DOC said it had completed a full round of tests for 328 inmates and staff members by 12:30 p.m. Thursday. As of 1 p.m., DOC had received 167 tests results. The remaining results are due on Friday, the DOC said.
The 28 inmates are asymptomatic, the DOC said.
The Vermont Corrections Department has been preparing the St. Johnsbury facility on U.S. 5 as a possible surge site in case there was rush of COVID-19 cases. Inmates from the St. Johnsbury prison have been shifted to the work camp complex at the south end of the correctional complex, the Caledonian-Record reported.
NWSCF remains on a full facility lock down as was announced earlier this week by Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.
All staff and inmates at the facility were issued masks to wear at all times beginning Monday April 6.
All facilities have now been placed in a full lockdown.
A full lockdown is a controlled measure to mitigate any further spread of the virus throughout the facility. Inmates will remain in their cells, essential services, meals, and medication will be brought to them and movement will be restricted except for emergency and hygiene purposes.
Additionally, protective masks have been delivered to all facilities to be used by staff and inmates.
MONTPELIER – President Donald Trump has approved the request by Gov. Phil Scott for federal disaster funds to assist the state of Vermont in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Trump’s approval covers Vermont’s request for federal Public Assistance (PA) funds for the state and all towns for costs incurred in the response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These funds are critical to the state as we continue to respond to, and work to recover from, this pandemic,” Gov. Scott said.
“I appreciate our federal partners and President Trump’s quick response and release of these public assistance funds,” Scott said late Wednesday afternoon.
This declaration will provide 75% reimbursement to state and local governments and some non-profits for emergency protective measures, including actions taken to save lives and protect public health and safety, including:
Vermont’s request for Individual Assistance, including Disaster Unemployment Assistance and Crisis Counseling Assistance/Regular Services Program for all Vermont counties, is still being reviewed at the federal level.
The Vermont Department of Finance and Management has advised the state has already expended well over $20 million in response costs, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medical equipment and personnel. The final cost of the response is expected to be far greater.
Non-profits that could be eligible for reimbursement include nursing homes, laboratories, rehab centers that provide medical care, hospitals and emergency care facilities, fire/rescue emergency services and education facilities.
Applicant briefings will be hosted by Vermont Emergency Management within the next two weeks. A schedule will be announced shortly.
For more information on the Public Assistance program and instructions on how to apply, visit www.vem.vermont.gov/covid19/disaster.