COVID-19, Events, Issues

Autumn Activity 2021

With fall foliage near peak in many parts of the state, Vermont is alive with color and visitors. I know that many of us are happy for a bit of normal Vermont life and nervous that so much activity may continue to spread COVID among Vermonters. Read more for an update on both the pandemic and other autumn activity in our brave little state.

COVID Update & Resources
This past week, even as the Governor claimed COVID was subsiding, we saw one of the highest daily case counts of the entire pandemic and additional COVID hospitalizations and deaths. Although we’re so tired of the pandemic, we all must continue to do our part to keep each other safe — get vaccinated, wear masks indoors, stay home and get tested when sick, and avoid high-risk gatherings. The Governor’s lack of definitive action, and especially his administration’s lack of support for local school districts who are struggling to manage our kids’ education and keep them safe during a pandemic, has been very frustrating. I have spoken to many local school leaders recently and they are stressed and exhausted, as they have been left to make difficult decisions about health protocols, contact tracing, and testing, as well as collect vaccination information from staff and students with little help from the state agencies.

I have been in repeated contact with the Commissioner of Health, and in an email two weeks ago I asked Dr. Levine to drastically improve the COVID infrastructure and guidance available to schools, healthcare providers, frontline workers, employers, and the general public. After hearing from many school leaders and legislators, the Agency of Education has finally rolled out updated COVID testing options for schools, with the aim of preventing viral spread and reducing missed school days after students are exposed to COVID. These testing options do include rapid tests and surveillance testing options, as well as clearer guidelines on what test option to use when. The Department of Health has also stepped up contact tracing help for schools. This assistance and guidance is an improvement, but we continue to lack robust support for schools and I know school staff still feel overwhelmed. Please be patient and kind with school personnel who reach out with questions and information.

Booster shots are now available for anyone who originally received a Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago and is age 65+ or people of any age with certain medical conditions, who work at jobs with a high-risk of COVID exposure, and BIPOC Vermonters. You can read more about why, how, and where to get a booster shot on the Department of Health website. Vaccines for children ages 5-11 may also be on the way in early November as the FDA works to approve the vaccine and the federal government finalizes a distribution plan, so schools and many families may have a respite soon. If you’re a parent of a younger child, plan ahead and talk with your pediatrician now if you have questions or concerns about the vaccine for your child.

Finally, several COVID financial assistance programs are still available, so if you need help paying bills, be sure to apply now. The VT COVID Arrearage Assistance Program provides financial support to people who face disconnection of electric, landline telephone, natural gas, water, or sewer due to overdue balances. Applications are due no later than October 24. The VT Emergency Rental Assistance Program is available until December 31 and provides assistance with past-due rent and utility bills. The VT Temporary Broadband Subsidy Program and the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program are both still available for help paying broadband internet bills.

Climate Council Work
The Vermont Climate Council, established after the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act last fall, has been hard at work developing recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the statutory deadlines. The Council will submit a report to the Legislature by December 15 so we can act on their recommendations next session. They recently completed a series of meetings to get public feedback on their work. They are also conducting a public survey and welcome comments via their public input form. I am eager to learn more about their recommendations and I encourage you to engage in their work too. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our world, and only if we work together and take definitive action can we both mitigate and prepare for the impact of climate change. Finally, while the Council does its work, Vermont youth climate leaders are also revitalizing their movement to ensure younger voices are heard in the climate action process. Listen to this story on VPR with interviews with some of the youth activists at a gathering on the State House lawn last month, including Iris Hsiang who is the youth member on the Climate Council, and (full disclosure) also my daughter Anya.

Legislative Reapportionment/Redistricting
Another group hard at work making plans this fall is the Vermont Legislative Reapportionment Board which will make recommendations to the Legislature on how to redraw Vermont’s House and Senate districts following the new population data in the 2020 U.S. Census. As Chittenden County and the entire northwest region of Vermont continues to grow while the Northeast Kingdom and some southern regions of Vermont decline in population, there will likely be a considerable shift in legislative districts. In addition, last session we passed a bill that requires that the large six-seat Chittenden Senate District be divided and that no senate district be more than three members. These population and district modifications may mean changes on the edges of the Addison Senate District and I know my constituents in Huntington and Buels Gore, in particular, are watching the situation closely.

You can view drafts of the district maps being considered by the Board and contact them with input or ideas. The Legislature has the final vote on redrawing the legislative districts, which must be proportional by population and adhere to local town and county boundary lines as much as possible. To learn more about the redistricting process across the country, check out the GeoCivics website which has resources for teachers, students, and community members. You can also practice drawing your own legislative district maps with cool public mapping tools such as DistrictR. While our single congressional district makes redistricting in Vermont more state than nationally-focused, the stakes are still high for democracy over the next decade.

Vergennes Historic Marker Celebration
Last week the City of Vergennes celebrated the installation of a roadside historic marker honoring Stephen Bates who was sheriff and police chief in Vergennes for 25 years beginning in 1879. Bates was the first known Black sheriff and police chief in Vermont and likely the northeast United States. From an escaped slave in the South to a community leader in the North, his story is a remarkable part of American and local history. The historic marker ceremony was the culmination of the work of an incredible team of community members, historians, and family members who rediscovered Sheriff Bates’ story. It was an honor to hear about their work and meet many of them, including his great-grandsons, at the ceremony. Check out the marker on the Vergennes City Green next to the church Bates attended and near the brick house where he once lived with his family. Visit the Bixby Library in Vergennes to see an exhibit about his story. See a photo from the event above.

Finally, on October 11, 2021, Vermont celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In honor of the first human settlers in this area and their ancestors who still live in Vermont, learn more about the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe and other tribes of the Abenaki Nation. Take care and stay safe.