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Masks and other pandemic protocols restored in Barre

BARRE — City Hall won’t be shuttered to the public and today’s community visit won’t be canceled, but a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has prompted City Manager Steve Mackenzie to revive some pandemic protocols he let lapse in June.

The most notable change — one that will go into effect today — is a requirement that everyone who enters City Hall, or any other municipally owned building, wear a cloth face covering.

The targeted mask mandate applies to employees and visitors in city-owned buildings regardless of their vaccination status and mirrors a protective measure adopted by the Montpelier City Council last week.

“It’s a reasonable, low-impact step to take to help avoid the spread of the virus, whether you’re vaccinated or not,” Mackenzie said Tuesday.

Since June 15 only those who had not yet been vaccinated were required to wear masks in municipal buildings. Those buildings — most notably City Hall — reopened to the general public on June 21 after being off-limits to most and appointment-only for some for more than a year.

Mackenzie said he doesn’t envision that happening again, but believed restoring some safety protocols in response to a surge in COVID cases associated with the delta variant was “prudent and necessary.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The mask requirement won’t apply to employees when they are working alone in an enclosed office, but those who work in common areas must wear one at all times.

Mackenzie said employees and visitors will again be expected to practice social distancing when in city buildings and employees have been instructed to stay home if they are ill or displaying any of the symptoms — from fever, cough and fatigue to sore throats, runny noses and body aches — associated with COVID.

“You shouldn’t be coming into work if you’re sick, period,” he said. “COVID or no.”

Starting today, Mackenzie said the rules will apply to public meetings typically held at City Hall and occasionally at Alumni Hall and will be extended to include three in-person venues for today’s community visit by the Vermont Council of Rural Development.

A series of nine 90-minute forums will be held throughout the day and this evening at Aldrich Public Library, Barre Opera House and Church of the Good Shepherd to kick off a community brainstorming session about Barre’s future. The event will also feature a free community dinner at the Elks Lodge.

Originally planned nearly 18 months ago the “All In for Barre” community visit was postponed in the early days of the pandemic and Mayor Lucas Herring said the possibility of it being canceled again given the rise in COVID cases was discussed and dismissed in recent days.

That said, Herring explained, the format, which initially involved six in-person forums — two at each location during the day, followed by three sessions and a remote option at night has been modified to accommodate virtual participants at each of the nine forums.

Herring said Tuesday he might be one of them, if only to create space for others to attend in person.

Eager to collect community feedback on topics that range from homelessness and substance use disorder to filling vacant buildings and transportation, Herring said the precautionary protocols proposed by Mackenzie, coupled with the virtual attendance option should be adequate.

“At this point there is nothing from the state that tells us we should not do it,” he said.

For the purposes of the city-sponsored forums, Mackenzie said the mask mandate would extend to the library and the Washington Street church. Because the opera house is co-located in City Hall he said they would automatically apply there. However, Mackenzie said nothing would prevent the opera house from adopting stricter guidelines if its board or executive director believed they are necessary.

Herring said there will be a grab and go alternative for tonight’s community dinner — providing those who prefer to eat outdoors that option. The free meal will be served at 6 p.m. at the Elks Lodge.

Herring is eager to collect community feedback on topics that range from homelessness and substance use disorder to filling vacant buildings and transportation. Links to the forums, which are scheduled to start at 2:30, 4:15 and 7 p.m. can be found at bit.ly/ForBarre and the mayor said he hopes those unable or uncomfortable attending in person will use them to participate.

“We want to get a turnout that is a representative sample of the city,” Herring said. “We need that input.”

Though Mackenzie’s protocols went into effect today, Herring said he encouraged those planning to present at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting to feel free to attend remotely. The council, he predicted, will have to spread out going forward in order to heed the social distancing requirement and some members uncomfortable wearing masks for a prolonged period of time might opt to participate remotely while the protocols remain in place.

“Hopefully it’s just a slight bump and things get back to normal shortly,” he said.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

Mike Dindo paints the goal posts at the U-32 football field in East Montpelier on Tuesday as the school readies for the impending school year, which begins Thursday.

Work goals

Scott resists calls for pandemic restrictions

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott is resisting calls from top lawmakers to reinstate coronavirus pandemic restrictions, saying now is not the time to reimpose a state of emergency order.

According to information released Tuesday by the state, there were 798 new cases of the virus reported during the past week, an increase over the 758 cases reported the week prior. Hospitalizations from the virus are up in Vermont, with 34 people reported hospitalized Tuesday and 15 of them in the intensive care unit. There have been 10 deaths from the virus in the state so far in the month of August, one shy of the total number of deaths from the virus in May, June and July combined.

The increased virus activity is attributed to the more-transmissible delta variant.

The governor lifted all pandemic-related restrictions and the state of emergency when Vermont hit 80% of the eligible population with at least one dose of the vaccine in June. Despite this recent rise in cases, Scott’s been reluctant to reinstate the restrictions, citing the state’s strong vaccine rate. The state reported Tuesday 85.6% of the state’s eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose, with about 79,244 residents yet to be vaccinated.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Chittenden, released a statement Tuesday calling on the governor to take action to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Since the start of the pandemic, Vermont has been leading the nation in our response to COVID, and Vermonters have stepped up heroically, steadfastly, and let evidence-based science guide our policy response. That’s why I am concerned that the Governor’s change in strategy is failing to keep Vermonters, all of us, safe,” Krowinski said.

She said other states have mask mandates in place, regardless of vaccination status, under recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“What number of new infections or ICU cases will it take for Governor Scott to issue a temporary indoor mask mandate?” Krowinski said.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, issued a statement Tuesday echoing Krowinski’s concerns. Balint said legislators are fielding questions from residents about the statewide strategy in response to the delta variant.

“In my role leading the legislative branch, I empathize with business leaders trying to make responsible decisions about masking and vaccine policies for their employees and the public. We need clear guidance from public health experts to help us make these decisions,” Balint said.

The lawmakers said school administrators and teachers have reported they need clearer guidance from the state before schools reopen for in-person instruction this fall. Without a state of emergency order in place, state officials have said any guidance they give schools would only be recommendations instead of requirements.

At his regular news conference Tuesday, the Republican governor accused the Democrat lawmakers of “playing politics” with the pandemic.

Scott said there was no play book when the pandemic started. He said his administration was “from the seat of their pants” addressing issues as they came up.

He said officials have learned much since the pandemic started, and while delta is more transmissible, it’s the same coronavirus. Scott said officials believe they know how to mitigate against the spread of the virus.

“We’re No. 1 in the nation in so many different categories, we’re doing something right,” he said.

He said he’s concerned with the increased cases and his administration is ready to pivot if necessary. But he said Maine recently reimposed restrictions and that had no impact on that state’s hospitalizations. In fact, Scott said their hospitalizations are now increasing faster than in Vermont.

“So their mitigation measures have not helped,” he said.

Scott said the modeling shows cases are expected to drop dramatically in a couple of weeks. He said he didn’t believe another state of emergency order is appropriate at this time and expressed concern about potential overuse or abuse.

“It should only be used in times of real emergency. There’s no emergency that we’re seeing at this point in time that would force us to go into (such an order),” he said.

The governor said the states Krowinski cited in support of a mask mandate never dropped their state of emergency. He said if Vermont were in the same spot as other states, it likely would still have the emergency order in place with a mask mandate.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

Gage Stone, left, and Matt Donahue, of Donahue Window Cleaning, wash the windows of The Skinny Pancake, in Montpelier, on Tuesday. Donahue says most commercial properties get their windows cleaned twice a year.

It’s a wash

Rutland Regional sets vaccine requirement for staff

Enacting a policy similar to the one announced by UVM earlier this month, Rutland Regional Medical Center will require all its employees be vaccinated by Oct, 1 and is tightening its conditions for visitors after the number of COVID patients hospitalized in Vermont and Rutland County increased, according to leader Claudio Fort.

Fort, the president and CEO of Rutland Regional, said the increase in rates of new cases was concerning. The Vermont Department of Health’s online COVID dashboard on Tuesday showed 17 new cases on Monday and 120 new cases collectively over the last two weeks.

The numbers posted each day on the dashboard reflect the cases identified the day before so Tuesday’s numbers show the new cases identified on Monday.

“Even more concerning, we’re showing hospitalizations across the state increase steadily over the past several weeks. So in order to protect our patients and our staff, we’re back to increasing some of the precautions here at the hospital to prevent transmission and keep everybody safe,” Fort said.

One change being made because of the increase in COVID cases is the requirement that employees agree to get vaccinated or get weekly COVID tests.

By email, Gerianne Smart, manager of marketing and public relations for Rutland Regional Medical Center, said the requirement will be enforced.

“We will continue to work with employees on an individual basis to address their concerns, but as of Oct. 1, if employees do not comply with the policy, they will no longer be able to work here. This is no different than any other employee policy we have in place,” Smart said.

In a statement dated Aug. 6, Dr. John Brumsted, president and CEO of the University of Vermont Health Network, which included Central Vermont Medical Center, explained the organization’s stance on employee vaccination.

Brumsted said the there had been a “consistent message” during the pandemic about the importance of getting vaccinated.

“Therefore, the UVM Health Network is actively engaged towards requiring our entire workforce of nearly 15,000 employees — including our employed physicians and also for travelers working in our facilities — to be vaccinated against COVID-19, as a condition of employment. Those who decline vaccination will be subject to weekly COVID-19 testing when this requirement goes into effect on Oct. 1,” the statement said.

The state of Vermont is also pursuing a vaccine requirement for employees working at certain institutions like the Vermont Veterans Home, correctional facilities and the state psychiatric hospital. The state policy is being finalized but is likely to include a requirement for wearing masks and an option for testing for those who want to opt out of the vaccine.

Fort said the requirement would include all employees and some contractors who are regularly at the hospital’s campus like the representatives for medical devices or construction workers.

The hospital’s employees get a weekly update from management and Fort said this week’s update, which was sent on Monday, announced the vaccination requirement.

Fort said the staff were also told that the hospital was setting stricter standards for personal protective equipment, or PPE, which had been relaxed when Vermont’s COVID numbers were low as a result of strong vaccination numbers. PPE will again be required when employees are expected to be within six feet of each other.

Some units, like the emergency department, will be required to wear N-95 respirator masks and eye shields, Fort added, as personal protection and to prevent increased viral transmission that’s being seen in Vermont and the rest of the country.

According to Fort, 88% of the roughly 1,700 employees of the health care system are fully vaccinated and the remaining staff who are expected to get the shots can get them from any available site, like local pharmacies, but the vaccinations are also available at the hospital campus and will be made available to those staff who need them.

“We can get them vaccinated immediately,” he said.

Betsy Hassan, chief nursing officer at RRMC, said there have also been changes to the visitation policy at the hospital which took effect on Tuesday.

Patients who are staying at the hospital for treatment are limited to two visitors, who must be the same two people, for the duration of their stay. Those who are not staying overnight or who are coming in for a procedure or clinic visit, may have one visitor accompany them.

Visitors to health care centers are already required to wear masks and that would include those visiting a hospital patient.

Describing the increase in COVID and its transmission, Fort said that as of about three weeks ago, in Vermont’s 14 hospitals there were about one or two COVID patients requiring hospitalization. As of Monday, there were 33 and the seven-day average was about 25.

“That is alarming and we’ve seen our COVID population … We were going for quite a few weeks with no COVID-positive patients at the hospital for maybe a month, at this point, but in the past three to five weeks, we’ve been averaging three to five patients hospitalized with COVID per day,” he said.

Fort said the hospital has increased its capacity to accommodate COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic but while he said there is space for those patients, the hospital is also dealing with increased use for other services. Fort said he believed that may be because patients delayed care in some cases during the worst of the pandemic but now “people feel comfortable coming back to the hospital.”

A second challenge is finding and retaining staff, especially nurses, Fort added.

“We’re managing right now and we’re managing with the current COVID census. We are concerned about the stress this puts on the hospital,” he said.

Hassan said she didn’t have the laboratory results in front of her on Tuesday, but said it was “reasonable to assume” the surge was due to the delta variant which is more transmissible than the original form of COVID-19.

Hassan and Fort agreed the best precaution Vermonters could take to reduce the problem is for residents to get vaccinated.

Hassan said staff at the hospital were hoping that some Vermonters who haven’t been vaccinated yet might want to get the shot now that the FDA has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. That vaccine is required to be stored at a sub-thermal temperature which the Rutland hospital can accommodate in a way that most pharmacies are unlikely to be able to meet.

Fort said he would encourage the public to go back to wearing masks and practice social distancing while in public again.

“Be smart about that. Try to reduce the level of transmission. Try to make sure health care capacity is available for people. We need the community’s help to make sure that our health care capacity is here for everybody. We don’t want to be overrun like we’re seeing in other states. With Vermont and Rutland County’s high vaccinations rates, we’re hoping we don’t get to that,” he said.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

Barre driver Jason Corliss uses the inside lane to pass Hinesburg racer Cooper Bouchard during Maplewood-Irving Late Model racing action earlier this season.