Phil Scott (copy)

Gov. Phil Scott speaks during a January press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott’s office announced on Friday that, beginning this Tuesday, Feb. 16, the state will open up vaccinations against COVID-19 to the next age band, those age 70 and over, and Secretary of Education Dan French announced that music programs would be returning to schools under strict guidelines.

Representatives from the Veterans Affairs hospital in White River Junction confirmed that they are already scheduling appointments for veterans beginning at age 65 at the hospital.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s press conference:

Phase 3 to begin Feb. 16

Scott said the band of patients to begin vaccination on Tuesday is the smallest group of people that they have separated out — approximately 33, 200 Vermonters, according to Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.

Up next will be Phase 4, which will bring with it the band of people aged 65 and over who will then be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, at which time others with high-risk conditions would become eligible to receive the vaccine.

Additionally, Scott said he would be signing an extension for a state of emergency for the next month,

“To date, over 85% of Vermonters 75 and older have scheduled or already received their vaccinations, which is faster than many other states,” Scott said.

Scott touched on the fact that other states had opened their age brackets for vaccine registration sooner than Vermont had, and said although registration was open, the states may not have the doses to cover everyone who chose to register.

Smith said he was confident that the state should be able to register, schedule and vaccinate quickly before moving on to the next phases, and Phase 6 planning is already underway.

Going online to healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine is the fastest way to make an appointment, and there are enough slots at sites throughout Vermont for everyone who is eligible.

Once at the MyVaccine website, people are asked to create an account. Vermonters age 70 and older can then log in to make their appointment.

Music education to return

Secretary Dan French said the most recent round of testing last week identified two positive COVID-19 tests, which translated to a positivity rate of 0.12% in Vermont’s public schools.

This week, with a staff testing participation rate of 33%, four cases were identified in Vermont, raising the rate of positivity to 0.35% — all of which were in Franklin County.

The state positivity rate remains at 1.8%, French said.

“There is a direct connection between the virus in our communities, and the virus in our schools,” French said.

The Agency of Education will be publishing guidance next week regarding the return of music in Vermont’s schools, including for all performers to have a 6-by-6-foot distance around them when performing at all times, unless the student is playing a trombone. In that case, the trombonist is required to have a distance of 6-by-9 feet around them.

While playing both woodwind and brass instruments, musicians will use masks that have a small slit in the center for the mouthpiece to fit through, and when at rest a second, non-slitted mask will be worn over the slitted one.

Woodwind and brass instruments will be required to have a multi-layer bell cover with a middle layer made of a MERV-13 filter material. The air in all practice and performance spaces will be required to have three complete exchanges per hour and rehearsals will be only 30 minutes long at most, officials said.

No audiences will be permitted in person, French said.

Instruments function differently from an aerosol perspective, French said.

“It’s now our turn, our responsibility, to show others how to recover from the pandemic and to restore normalcy to the lives of our students by returning to more in-person education, in-person activities…” French said.

Influenza numbers down, but COVID-19 is up

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that to date there have been 13,415 cases in Vermont, with 189 deaths and 47 hospitalizations.

Fortunately, the annual expected influenza boom didn’t seem to hit this year, but there has recently been a rise in COVID-19 diagnoses in Bennington, Rutland and Franklin counties.

In Bennington, there are 244 cases, 51 due to active outbreaks, while in Rutland there are 306 cases with 83 due to active outbreaks.

In Franklin there are 244 cases with 68 due to active outbreaks, but Levine said outbreaks are not the main driving force, which is a sign that there is community transmission.

Additionally, there have been two samples of the B117 virus variant that was originally identified in the United Kingdom, which has already been identified in 34 states.

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