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Vermont agencies push on with COVID-19 mitigation efforts

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Vermonters are continuing to prepare for the potential spread of the coronavirus-caused disease COVID-19, cancelling events and instituting social distancing policies aimed at mitigating the spread of the disease.

On Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy's office announced that Vermont will receive $4.9 million in emergency grants to combat the coronavirus.

Leahy was a lead negotiator of the $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus supplemental appropriations package that was signed into law last week, according to a news release from Leahy's office.

The grants were awarded from the nearly $1 billion in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program grants included in the package.

The grants will be awarded to state and local governments to support response and mitigation efforts across the state, including monitoring, testing, controlling the potential for spread, and mitigation activities, according to Leahy's office. Should the coronavirus continue to spread across the state, Vermont is eligible to receive further, direct assistance under the PHEP program.

Officials announced the state's first case of COVID-19 last weekend. It involves an adult male patient being treated in an isolation unit at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.

The patient presented to SVMC's emergency department on March 5 with fever, cough and shortness of breath. He was admitted, isolated immediately in a negative pressure room, and tested for COVID-19. Early results from the Vermont Department of Health came back presumptive positive; conclusive results from the CDC are expected this week.

Various local agencies are instituting more extensive screening of visitors, or closing to the public entirely.

The Vermont Veterans' Home has instituted a screening questionnaire for visitors, which involves "the standard questions that you're getting at any medical facility," said Melissa Jackson, CEO of the home.

The form asks people if they've been to a healthcare facility where someone has been treated for COVID-19, or if they've been on a cruise in the last 14 days, have traveled to certain countries or have signs or symptoms like a fever, sore throat, cough or shortness of breath.

Visitors must fill out the questionnaire daily.

Jackson said the veterans' home is following recommendations from the Vermont Department of Health.

It's very important that veterans have contact with their families, she said, so officials are balancing their need for visitors with healthy and safety concerns.

There are 129 veterans at the veterans' home, and 205 employees, Jackson said.

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"We're getting questions, and people are concerned," she said. "There's a lot of misinformation out there. A lot of fake news on Facebook."

They're telling people to wash their hands regularly, and are asking individuals not to visit if they are sick — Skype and FaceTime visits can be arranged.

The Bennington Senior Center was also set to close at noon Wednesday, and remain closed until Friday.

A post on the town's website on Wednesday announces the closure, "due to the current climate regarding COVID-19, and the resulting concerns and cancellations from seniors."

Going forward, the center will be following the recommendations set by forth by the governor's office and the Vermont Department of Health, according to the post.

Closure updates will be posted on the town website and will also be included in the senior center's outgoing message at 802-442-1052.

As of 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 59 Vermonters have completed monitoring and 215 Vermonters are being monitored for COVID-19, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

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The department's webpage on the coronavirus encourages those with questions about COVID-19 to dial 2-1-1.

Local colleges and schools are also closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation.

Katie Keszey, director of communications for the Community College of Vermont, said CCV officials are working closely with the Vermont Department of Health to make sure they're prepared for potential cases.

"At this time we have not cancelled classes," she said in an email. "We are developing plans to minimize disruption to our learning community in the event that we need to suspend classes at any of our academic centers, including helping faculty and students prepare to move classes online."

CCV is also conducting all meetings remotely until April 3 and cancelling all nonessential meetings and events until then, she said in the email.

Bennington College also has announced it will cancel the March 18 Poetry at Bennington reading.

Other policy changes at the college that focus on reducing exposure risk were effective Monday, according to the college's COVID-19 update page on its website.

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Speaker events and speaker series with an anticipated attendance of more than 30 people that cannot happen virtually will be cancelled or postponed.

For events with anticipated attendance of fewer than 30 people, the "safest option" is still to cancel or postpone the event if it cannot happen virtually, the page states.

On-campus events will also not be open to public in-person attendance, but whenever possible, links will be shared to watch the events online.

All events held through the college's Long Weekend, April 4-8, will be affected by these new procedures; the total number of events affected will likely be 15-20, Natalie Redmond, associate writer for the college, said in an email.

"However, we continue to monitor this situation day-by-day and will make calls on whether or not to hold public events in April as we get closer to those dates," she said.

Students are also not being permitted to have guests on campus, and the college's Crossett Library has been closed to the public.

In the event of a confirmed case on campus, the college will shift to remote delivery of all courses.

The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is also continuing to monitor advisories from the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Agency of Education in regards to the coronavirus, said Jim Culkeen, superintendent of the SVSU, in the most recent update on the supervisory union's website.

"Although there are currently no restrictions for in state or interstate travel, school administrators have been asked to submit a list of planned events to the superintendent's office for review," Culkeen states in the update.

Some regional events have also been cancelled, including the New England Music Festival, which was set for March 19-21 in Hanover, New Hampshire, according to the update.

Multiple other regional events have been cancelled in Vermont and surrounding states as officials work to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

These cancellations include Special Olympics Vermont's Winter Games, which were scheduled for March 22-24, as well as the Unified Champion Schools Snowshoe Tournament, scheduled for March 25.

The Southern Vermont Penguin Plunge at Bromley Mountain will be restructured to allow both a physical and virtual event, according to a media release from Special Olympics Vermont.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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