Dan French, Scott Presser

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French delivers a virtual address during Gov. Scott’s Jan. 29 COVID-19 briefing.

MONTPELIER — Along with updates on COVID-19 case counts and vaccination distribution during Gov. Phil Scott’s Friday press conference, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French provided details on school-related activities.

French said that a decision has not yet been made on when schools’ sports teams will be able to compete against one another, saying that not enough time has passed to understand the impact of moving to Phase 2 — which allows intra-team scrimmages and some contact amongst athletes — on COVID-19 case counts.

Later Friday, Scott’s office sent out a joint statement in which he and governors from all other New England states and New Jersey extended the suspension of interstate youth hockey through March 31. The previously announced regional suspension was dated through at least Jan. 31.

Turning to schools’ music programs, French said the state is struggling with developing guidance, noting that aspects of music are “inherently more risky” than other activities. French said Vermont is maintaining a commitment to finding a path forward for it and that a meeting with music teachers and health experts to review next steps is scheduled for Feb. 9.

French also touched upon mandatory state assessments, saying Vermont is waiting to see how the Biden Administration will be addressing the requirement this year. He said that in the meantime, the Vermont Agency of Education is evaluating options and is planning to provide an update later in February on the testing that is usually administered in May, except for last year when the federal government waived the state requirement.

According to French, schools are continuing to offer voluntary, weekly COVID-19 testing to staff and that about 40% of school employees have been participating each week with a positivity rate of just 0.08%.

COVID-19 vaccinations

Scott started the press conference by reiterating the state’s strategy in vaccinating the state’s population that is 75 years old and older before younger age bands, addressing questions and concerns he’s heard from people that ask why younger people — who might be more likely to be “out and about” — cannot receive the vaccine first.

“I understand how anxious everyone is,” said Scott. He emphasized that he feels strongly that the state’s goal should be to reduce hospitalizations and deaths rather than prioritizing lower-risk groups. Scott said that if those most at risk are protected sooner, the State of Emergency can end faster, which would lead to further opening of the economy.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith reported that, as of Friday morning, 32,952 Vermonters have received their first vaccine dose and that 15,400 have received their second. He said 32,556 Vermonters who are 75 years old and older were registered to receive their first dose over the next five weeks, but Scott also mentioned that, “There are still plenty of time slots available.”

Smith anticipates that the first three age bands — 75 and older, 70 and older, and 65 and older — will receive both of their doses by the end of winter or early spring.

Smith explained that the state is using the first dose to calculate when it can begin moving to the next phase as it tells officials how many new people can be vaccinated with the allotment received from the federal government. He noted that the timeframe could be accelerated by new vaccines being approved for the market or an increase in the federal allotment, such as when Vermont received an additional 1,350 first doses this past week.

As part of this week’s transition of including the 75 and older age band in vaccine administration with the 1A group — health care workers — Smith said a majority of the state’s doses went to the older population. This, he said, led some to believe that the 1A group was no longer receiving the vaccine at all, which is not the case. He pointed out that health care workers will continue to receive doses, just in smaller amounts.

Smith said there is no waiting list for the vaccine but that the state maintains lists of people who are eligible to receive it, such as those in the 1A group and those 75 and older, who aren’t registered but may be contacted if there are extra doses available. However, he stated that — in order to prevent wasting doses and as a last resort — local health clinics have been given permission to use “Vermont common sense and fairness” and administer the vaccine to people who are not currently eligible at the end of each day.

According to Smith, the state is working on its response to increased demand for additional appointments in certain counties — Bennington, Orange, and Lamoille — and that it’s going to continue working with Grand Isle County to finalize and add appointment sites.

Springfield Hospital situation{span class=”print_trim”}Smith followed up on Wednesday’s press conference at which he read a text message he and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine received shortly before it started, reporting that 860 doses of the Moderna vaccine at Springfield Hospital were discovered to have been stored at a temperature higher than the maximum recommendation. Smith initially reported Wednesday that the manufacturer required the doses to be wasted.The secretary said it was a “game time call” in reporting that information Wednesday in the name of transparency. However, he said on Friday that Moderna reported to state officials on Thursday that all of the doses were effective and safe for use after consultation with the Vermont Department of Health. Levine said that the more thorough investigation found the doses to have been stored at just over one centigrade higher than recommended.

Smith apologized for any confusion, and Levine said they want the public to know it can have complete confidence in the vaccine and Springfield Hospital.

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