State provides update on Delta variant, emergency housing program and veto session
By Hannah Laga Abram
It’s been a week since Vermont lifted all Covid-19 restrictions — and the skies didn’t fall. On the contrary, as Gov. Phil Scott emphasized in Tuesday’s press conference, new case numbers continue to decrease throughout the state, Vermonters continue to get vaccinated and things just might be looking up.
Covid cases fell under 5,000 in New England this week, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, despite all six states having fully reopened. Vermont saw only 38 new cases and has only recorded one Covid-related death in the past five weeks. Scott said he anticipates fatalities will remain low.
Vaccine rates continue to rise in Canada as well, with 66.7% of the country having received at least one dose. Though Trudeau last week announced that the border will remain closed for another month, fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and residents are now able to enter the U.S. without a full two-week quarantine. Scott said clarity around when the border may begin to loosen and how opening will look remains lacking from Canadian officials.
At home, though, numbers are encouraging, but “it doesn’t mean we’re letting off the gas,” Scott said.
The Delta variant, which Dr. Fauci named as “the greatest threat” to the country’s pandemic response, now accounts for just over 20% of U.S. cases and has been identified in Vermont, Dr. Levine said. More contagious than previous strains, rising cases of the Delta variant have been recorded in places like the Midwest, with lower vaccination rates.
The variant is yet another good reason to get vaccinated if you aren’t already, Scott said. Pop-up vaccination clinics will continue throughout the state this week, while most pharmacies and drugstores now also offer walk-in vaccine appointments.
Dr. Levine also urged Vermonters who are vaccinated to ensure the people around them are vaccinated as well.
“I trust the vaccine, but I don’t trust the virus,” Levine said, adding that if it’s not this variant that threatens unvaccinated folks, it will be the next one, or the next. He said that “listening and being empathetic and non-judgmental can go a long way” in encouraging others to receive the vaccine.
But with 81.3% of eligible Vermonters – and over 90% of Vermonters 65+ — vaccinated, the state continues to give its attention to reopening. A major part of this transition will go into effect on July 1, when the current emergency housing protocols end. At the pandemic’s peak, Vermont housed up to 2,000 homeless households in hotels and motels throughout the state. The new eligibility requirements developed by the state expect to see about 700 people required to move out of emergency housing, with over 1,000 qualifying for additional housing support.
Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith estimated the state has spent more than $79 million on emergency housing in the past year, much of which has been reimbursed by FEMA. The state has promised $41 million for the new emergency housing protocols, in contrast to the allocated $6 million that supported the pre-pandemic program.
“Transitioning to a more sustainable scale of emergency housing program will be ensure that Vermonters in need will be connected to the resources and the care they need,” Smith said. He added that the emergency housing program is not meant to be a solution to homelessness; the goal is to transition households to more permanent housing. To meet this need, the state has allocated $120 million to build more affordable housing.
The past week has seen such welcome changes that not even this week’s veto session can dampen Scott’s spirits. The legislators will return Wednesday for a mostly remote veto session in the hopes of overturning three bills Scott vetoed last year. Two bills are proposed charter changes in Montpelier and Winooski and the third deals with shielding the records of young adults accused of certain crimes.
Democrats hope to rally two-thirds majority votes in the House and the Senate to overturn the bills the governor wrote off. Scott said he thinks all three could be better, but he doesn’t feel as competitive about it as he might have before the pandemic.
“After what we’ve been through in the past 15 months, whatever happens, life will go on,” Scott said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
And regardless of which side of the veto Vermonters are on, Scott added that “we’ll all want to be watching Montgomery’s Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who on Monday qualified as the state’s newest Olympian in the 1500-meter run. “It’s very exciting for her and very exciting for Vermont,” Scott said.