Under shadow of Trump diagnosis, a rundown of education plans, testing

Phil Scott with travel map
Gov. Phil Scott discusses the state’s quarantine requirements for travelers during a press briefing on July 24. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott started his press conference Friday with a call for Vermonters to help one another, saying he understands how stressful and troubling the times are.

Asked about President Donald Trump’s early-morning announcement that he had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, the governor said that his thoughts are with the president, his family, and the many people Trump may have come in contact with recently.

The job loss, larger economic uncertainty, political polarization and continuing health fears of the pandemic have tested Vermonters again and again, the governor said.

“I know this has taken a toll on many,” Scott said. Sometimes it feels as though the nation will never heal, he said. “But we will. Because we’re strong, our institutions are strong, and there’s still so much more that unites us than divides us.

“So let’s focus on the areas where we agree. It’s not dwelling on where we don’t. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Scott also took the opportunity of Trump’s positive test to remind Vermonters, as he does at nearly every Covid briefing, that they should remain vigilant about safety in the seventh month of the pandemic.  

“It’s a reminder that this virus knows no boundaries,” he said.

The state budget

Scott said he signed the $7.15 billion state budget that, among many other things, increases funding for Vermont schools to cover Covid-19 expenses, and sets up a hazard pay program for essential workers. 

While the state’s tax revenues have been hammered by the pandemic, lawmakers and the governor were able to avoid making big cuts this year, in part because of a tax surplus in July and the $1.25 billion the state received from the federal coronavirus relief fund.

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The budget was actually split into two parts: a three-month budget to cover costs while state leaders figured out how the pandemic would affect state finances, and a second budget to cover the rest of the fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2021.

Educational assessment

Vermont’s K-12 schools have now been in session, remotely and in person, since Sept. 8, with very few cases of the virus detected in students and staff, said Education Secretary Daniel French.

French said Friday that it’s time for schools to look more closely at students’ academic, social and emotional needs. French and Scott have both emphasized in the past that they believe it’s important to get students into in-person learning. Some staff and parents have resisted, citing the danger of infection.

On Friday, French said schools have shown they can adapt to operate safely, a necessary condition for the next phase of the reopening plan, which will focus more closely on meals, emotional support, athletics, arts and academics. Teachers will start assessing the educational impact of the crisis in coming weeks.

“This assessment, to a large extent, depends on the daily in-person contact between students and their teachers,” French said. “We cannot afford to lose another six months of instructional time.”

Antigen testing

The federal government is sending Vermont as many as 180,000 rapid antigen tests by the end of the year after contracting to buy 150 million of the tests from the Maine pharmaceutical developer Abbott Laboratories.

On Friday, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he thinks about 12,000 of those tests will arrive by the end of next week. Levine has said Vermont will prioritize using the tests for people who are most at risk of complications from Covid-19.

The relatively inexpensive, quick-result tests have been criticized by some as inaccurate. They’re not expected to be a game-changer in Vermont.

“There are some settings where they might potentially be useful, but we might not need them right now because we have other testing strategies in place that are already set up and strategically directed,” Levine said.

“If we really don’t need them for the settings that the government thinks we should put them in immediately, like long-term-care settings, we would hold on to them and develop a strategy for the future,” he said.

Canadian border

The Canadian border has been closed to most traffic since March, limiting tourism and trade that is vital to many Vermont businesses. On Oct. 1, Maine U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan asked Trump to reevaluate the border restrictions, saying the risk of Covid-19 transmission appeared to be low.

Highgate border crossing
U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s border crossing in Highgate. Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Scott said it’s still too risky to encourage travel to and from Canada. Case numbers and deaths are rising in Quebec, he noted.

“At some point in time, I’m more than open to having that cross-border trade, more tourism, and our Canadian friends coming to visit us,” he said.  But not yet, Scott said.

“It’s the data and the science that we rely on in making these decisions, and I think that should drive the decision-making here,” he said.

Vermont cases

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Bennington-area residents who are concerned about the discovery of five cases after a golf tournament at Mount Anthony Country Club can be tested Monday, Levine said. 

More than 80 people who attended the tournament got text messages from the Department of Health about the cases, three in Vermont residents and two in New York residents.

The state is at 1,768 Covid-19 cases now, with a small number of new cases discovered regularly among thousands and thousands of tests, Levine said. Fifty-eight people have died of Covid-19 in Vermont, with no deaths in 66 days.

“We’re not currently following any significant cases, clusters, or outbreaks in colleges or school settings,” Levine said. He added that Vermont inmates at a Mississippi prison where there was an August outbreak recently received a follow-up test and this week learned they are negative.

Presidential debate

Scott was also asked about the Sept. 29 presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland, an event that was marred by interruptions and name-calling. The sponsor, the Commission on Presidential Debates, put out a statement Oct. 1 saying it would add “additional structure” to ensure “a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

Scott, a Republican who has long made it clear he doesn’t plan to vote for Trump, called the debate “a low moment in our history, in so many different respects disappointing.” He hasn’t said if he plans to vote for Biden.

“I was a bit embarrassed to be an American at that point,” he said of the debate. 

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