We have one week to go in the legislative session, and there are many important bills still to finish. So while there is much work still be done, here is an update on COVID vaccines and a few bills the Senate passed last week.
The State of COVID Vaccines
I am so proud of everyone in Addison County for doing extremely well getting vaccinated! The county has the highest vaccination rate in the state with nearly 80% of people vaccinated with at least a first dose, and Chittenden County is close behind with a 77% vaccination rate. Overall, Vermont ranks first in the nation for the percentage of people vaccinated. Let’s keep it up!
This past week, the federal government announced that children ages 12 and older are now eligible to be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. I know many parents, including me, rushed to get their kids signed up and local pharmacies were a middle school mecca over the past few days. Most local schools are hosting vaccination clinics over the next several weeks and there are abundant other locations where the Pfizer vaccine is administered. I know parents take health care decisions about their children extremely seriously and because this is new, you may have questions. I urge parents to talk with their pediatricians about the vaccine if they have concerns. The Department of Health is sponsoring a number of information sessions with pediatricians around the state and has produced a great fact sheet about the vaccine and children. You can also watch Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Rebecca Bell give an informative overview of vaccine development, mRNA vaccines, and why the Chapter is excited about recent developments!
You also likely heard that CDC and Vermont officials have announced that anyone who is fully vaccinated, which means at least two weeks after their final vaccination shot, no longer has to wear a mask indoors or outdoors, except in health care settings, long-term care facilities, correctional centers, homeless shelters, on public transportation, and where required by workplaces or institutions. Schools and childcare programs will continue to require masks as many kids have either not yet been vaccinated or are too young to be vaccinated under current eligibility rules. Anyone who has not yet been fully vaccinated must continue to mask indoors in all locations, and those who are not yet comfortable taking off the mask may of course chose to continue to mask-up.
We have come so far over the past 15 months and there are so many people to thank for this. For example, check out this great article in the Addison Independent about the Open Door Clinic’s efforts to get farm workers in Addison County vaccinated. Also, May is Nurses Month which highlights the vital work of nurses. During the COVID pandemic no profession has been more crucial to efforts to help keep people safe and care for those who are sick. Thank you to nurses working in Vermont!
This past week, the Senate passed H.360, a bill that allocates an initial $150 million to bring high-speed broadband to every corner of Vermont. Many rural areas, including large portions of Addison County, Huntington, and Buels Gore do not have access to high speed broadband, in large part because sparsely populated areas aren’t profitable for private companies to build infrastructure and deliver service. So H.360 funds local communications union districts (CUDs), which are public municipalities throughout Vermont, similar to water and sewer districts. Local selectboards vote to join a CUD and appoint members to the public boards that govern CUDs. In Addison County, Maple Broadband is the local CUD which covers most of the county; this map shows the coverage areas for CUDs statewide.
The bill creates a state-level board that will distribute grants to CUDs, and potentially private telecommunications companies that either partner with CUDs or cover the few areas where CUDs don’t operate. Grants will fund both pre-construction planning and construction activities to string fiber optic lines that will be capable of 100/100 high speed internet service. Both high-speed fiber and universal coverage are requirements to qualify for funding. This is a huge opportunity to enact a Vermont solution to an entrenched problem, made possible by federal funding in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and committed folks across Vermont who lead our towns and CUDs.
While H.360 starts with appropriating $100 million and reserving another $50 million for next year, additional funding will likely be allocated as more federal funding is approved and the new board is able to more fully assess needs across the state. Construction will begin this summer in areas that are ready but it will likely be a few years until every area is covered. However, right now, if you live in a location on the edge of an already covered area, you may qualify for the Line Extension Customer Assistance Program that provides $3,000 grants to extend broadband lines to your home. These grants are available to individuals and groups of neighbors throughout 2021. Finally, if you need assistance paying for internet service, check out the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program which provides a $50 per month subsidy plus up to $100 to help purchase a tablet or computer.
Sexual Consent and Campus Sexual Harm Prevention
This past week, the Senate passed H.183 which updates the definition of sexual consent for the first time in over 40 years, stating that consent means “the affirmative, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement to engage in a sexual act, which can be revoked at any time.” The bill lays out when a person is not capable of giving consent, including when they are asleep or intoxicated, and that consent cannot be obtained by force or threat. The bill also updates trial procedures related to sexual assault and requires better data collection and reporting.
Finally, the bill establishes an Intercollegiate Sexual Harm Prevention Council to “create a coordinated response to campus sexual harm across institutions of higher learning in Vermont.” This portion of the bill almost didn’t make it, but as a survivor of campus sexual harm, I spoke up and ensured a path for its inclusion. Especially given recent events at the University of Vermont and the fact that more than one in five Vermont women and transgender students are victims of sexual assault, it’s imperative that Vermont colleges take an active, collaborative approach to the prevention of sexual harm on campuses. You can watch me discuss the bill on WCAX evening news.
Eugenics Policies and Practices Apology
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed J.R.H. 2, a joint resolution “sincerely apologizing and expressing sorrow and regret to all individual Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed as a result of State-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices.” I encourage you to read the full resolution which lays out the specific actions the Vermont General Assembly, among others, took to advance eugenics policies and practices during the first half of the 20th Century, the implications of which continue today. These policies, which included forced sterilization and institutionalization, targeted Vermonters who were “poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as individuals, families, and communities whose heritage was documented as French Canadian, French-Indian, or of other mixed ethnic or racial composition and persons whose extended families’ successor generations now identify as Abenaki or members of other indigenous bands or tribes.” Healing and progress after such horrific acts of discrimination and harm cannot begin without a sincere apology and a strong commitment to create lasting change.
There is much more to come as the Legislature finalizes its work this session, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a great movie to watch with deep local roots, I highly recommend checking out Best Summer Ever which was filmed in Bristol and Lincoln, and includes great scenes at Mt. Abe High School and a wonderful dance number in downtown Bristol. The film is a production of Zeno Mountain Farm whose mission is to “support lifelong friendships and opportunities for people with and without disabilities and other marginalized communities.” If you’ve been to the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, you’ve certainly enjoyed the fabulous Zeno Mountain Farm float and performers. The organization’s programs include summer camps in Lincoln and a growing film studio in Los Angeles which makes films with casts and crews that are fully inclusive of people with disabilities.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the gorgeous May weather and beautiful blossoming trees! And don’t forget to get vaccinated – stay safe and well.
Note: Header image from VT Department of Health website: https://www.healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine.