COVID-19 Update for March 22

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I hope you are taking care of yourself and your family during these difficult times. I’m writing again with an update on what I know at this moment about the COVID-19 situation in Vermont and resources that may be helpful to you. Again, I urge everyone to take this public health crisis seriously. Please stay home if you can and limit in-person interactions with people outside your household. Watch this helpful PSA from infectious disease expert Dr. Tim Lahey of UVM Medical Center explaining why people should stay home.

The most comprehensive place to stay up-to-date with the situation in Vermont remains the Vermont Department of Health website. Visit the Porter Medical Center website for information about local medical services. Porter Medical Center has been pro-active about enlisting community assistance to ensure that they are ready should the hospital have a surge in patients. Read this statement from leaders at Porter, Middlebury College, and the Town of Middlebury about how they are working together to confront this public health crisis. The Vermont National Guard has been called on by the Governor to assist in COVID-19 efforts; you can learn more about their response in this video from the Vermont Adjutant General.

Business, Employee, and Health Insurance Assistance
Restaurants and bars were ordered by Governor Scott to close as of last Tuesday and “close-contact businesses,” such as fitness centers & gyms, hair salons, and tattoo parlours must close by Monday, March 23 at 8pm. Many other small businesses have elected to close or have greatly reduced operations. Employees of businesses can file an initial Application for Unemployment Insurance online. Business owners can apply for federal Small Business Administration disaster loans to help them through this crisis and many local banks are offering flexible lines of credit. Additionally, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development has a list of resources for businesses. Finally, SCORE Vermont offers free business mentoring services for businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Many people are concerned about losing their health insurance during this time. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, Vermont is temporarily waiving financial verifications required for those seeking to enroll in health insurance, extending coverage periods until after the emergency ends, and suspending certain terminations of health insurance. Vermont Health Connect is also offering a special one-month enrollment period for those who do not currently have health insurance to enroll in a qualified health plan and receive premium and cost-sharing assistance, if eligible. Eligible Vermonters can continue to apply for, and enroll in, Medicaid at any time. See the Vermont Health Connect website for more information.

Housing and Student Loans
The Vermont Housing Finance Agency has posted a list of housing resources during COVID-19 for Vermonters, as well as affordable housing updates during COVID-19. If you are having difficulty meeting mortgage or rental payments due to job loss during the COVID-19 emergency, you should contact your bank or landlord. Vermont banks have been asked to be flexible and work out acceptable repayment plans during this difficult time in order to avoid foreclosures. Landlords could also reach out to their own bankers, if necessary, to make mortgage plans so that they could be more flexible with renters. The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) will also work with student loan holders on emergency payment plans. Borrowers have up to 24-months of emergency loan foreberance, during which time they do not have to make loan payements.

Impact on Farmers
I know that many farmers are being uniquely affected by this public health crisis. Milk prices have fallen precipitiously as the virus has spread through international markets and now national and local markets. Our state’s cheesemakers and other producers have been significantly impacted by the closing of restaurants. Many farmers have concerns about the availability of workers for the upcoming growing season. This crisis has demonstrated the absolute necessity of a strong local foods economy as we experience interrupted supply chains througout the world. Supporting local farmers and producers is more crucial now than ever. If you’re a farmer who has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, please fill out this form to let the VT Agency of Agriculture know about your experience, and visit the Agency’s website for a list of resources specifically relevant to farmers. For dairy farmers, the Agency resources include fact sheets specifically for dairy workers in English and Spanish. Finally, NOFA-VT is collecting a list of people who would be willing to work on a dairy farm if dairies experience worker shortages due to COVID-19.

Communications Resources
The VT Public Utilities Commission is maintaining a map of public wifi hotspots in Vermont that can be used by Vermonters who may have otherwise relied on wifi at work or school. In addition, the Commission website has information about other resources related to wifi connectivity and phone service during this time when we’re all dependent on distance education and remote working & socializing. Members of the Vermont refugee and immigrant community have created these wonderful videos in nine different languages (and counting) explaining the situation with COVID-19 in Vermont. Please share with family and friends who may benefit from communications in their native language. Communicating with young children about what’s going on can also be difficult, so parents of young children should check out this episode of VPR’s But Why? A Podcast for Curious Kids, “Explaining Coronavirus To Kids, and The Science Of Soap.” During this massive global health crisis we need to communicate well with everyone!

Work of the Vermont Senate
The Vermont Senate and many of its committees have been meeting daily via phone for the past week. On Tuesday, at least 16 of the 30 members of the Senate will return in person to the State House to vote on consensus legislation that will help our state better react to this crisis. Every branch of state and local government in Vermont is working together to respond to this emergency. You can find the full legislative committee schedule and dial-in information for the week on the legislative website.

The bill will include several health care measures including provisions to enable health care providers do as much work as possible via telemedicine to avoid in-person contact with patients and prevent the spread of COVID-19. It will provide hospitals with financial regulatory relief so they can invest the necessary resources in fighting this pandemic and provide licensing flexibility to enable retired and out-of-state health care providers in good-standing temporarily practice in Vermont. The legislation includes several provisions related to the 2020 elections, including eliminating candidate petitions to avoid in-person contact; allowing municipalities to meet via phone or video-conferencing; permitting Australian ballots for all municipal votes; and giving the Secretary of State and Governor the joint authority to determine if the August primaries and/or November elections should take place remotely. Provisions related to unemployment insurance, motor vehicle issues, the judiciary, and other areas are also pending.

I will share more information about this bill as it’s finalized. All of the provisions would be temporary, remaining in effect only during the declared emergency, or 2020, or in the case of the telemedicine provisions, for a set number of years prior to a formal review. Every provision of the bill will have been agreed to by both Houses in the legislature and all parties, so that we can be as efficient and effective in our duty to safely and quickly pass this vital legislation. We are also working on a larger emergency aid package that we will advance as more information about the impacts of the crisis on the state and its finances, broadly speaking, are known.

Finally, I want to be sure that people up in Huntington know about their community’s wonderful mutual aid effort, Huntington Cares. Please reach out to them via email or phone 802-434-4854 to let them know what services you or someone you know needs, and what services you are able to provide. It’s heart-warming to see communities across the Addison District coming together to help each other! Remember also Vermont 2-1-1 remains available to connect you with general resources statewide.

I hope you are finding ways to stay safe and take care during these incredibly difficult times. We have been fortunate this weekend to have gorgeous weather – get outside for some fresh air and sunshine! Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions, ideas, and concerns. I will continue to communicate information through these posts as I have it. We are all in this together. Be well.