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MONTPELIER — Vermont has developed a flexible plan for when the first COVID-19 vaccines are approved by the federal government and distribution to the states begins, administration officials said Friday.

The state’s response was outlined during a media conference at the Statehouse led by Gov. Phil Scott, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and Mike Pieciak, the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

The briefing also addressed a second round of funding for Vermont’s hazard pay grant program for employees in the state’s essential worker categories.

Scott and Levine said a COVID-19 Vaccination Planning Team was created in July to begin the process of developing a vaccination distribution plan.

The group includes experts from the Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, the University of Vermont Medical Center (Vaccine Testing Center and Pediatrics) and the Agency of Digital Services.

While details of the first vaccine that will receive federal approval remain unknown at this time, Scott said Vermont has “a strong infrastructure in place,” and has been “working with a talented team of world class experts for months to learn from past experiences and to further strengthen our systems.”

Levine said that consultation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources indicates that a vaccine will be approved for distribution before the end of 2020. The keys for Vermont officials, he said, are that the vaccine “must meet all FDA (Food and Drug Administration) safety standards and be recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, free from politics.”

The state recently submitted its interim vaccine management plan for Vermont to the CDC.

LIMITED SUPPLYInitially, Levine said, vaccine supplies are expected to be limited, so that the state “will need to prioritize groups that are most critical to the response, those who provide direct care and those who are essential to maintaining a functioning society, as well as those at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19.”

While Vermont is preparing to deal with any amount of vaccine, Levine said, “it is expected the initial supply of COVID-19 vaccine will likely be limited. Accordingly, vaccination efforts will need to prioritize groups that are most critical to the response, those who provide direct care and those who are essential to maintaining a functioning society, as well as those at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19.”

Those to be vaccinated in the first phase include people who provide direct care to others (for example, health care professionals); those who are critical to the COVID-19 response (for example, people who work at COVID-19 testing sites, people who process COVID-19 specimens at laboratories); people essential to maintaining a functional society (for example, first responders); and older adults and people with chronic illnesses who are at the highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19

The state has submitted responses to a series of questions from the CDC, the officials said, which provide a framework for vaccine distribution and Vermont’s preparedness. The federal government, which is responsible for nationwide distribution of vaccines, is expected to provide details on many logistical questions surrounding a potential vaccine.

The state’s interim COVID-19 vaccination plan is expected to evolve as new information comes forward, Scott said.

Statewide coordination and implementation of the plan will be managed jointly by the State Emergency Operations Center and the Vermont Department of Health’s Health Operation Center, which includes the newly formed Vaccination Branch and its four sections: immunization program operations; technical response; points of distribution (POD) mass vaccination; and data management.

This effort will also include a range of partners, the officials said, such as pharmacies, hospitals, primary care providers, community service organizations, privately run clinics, long-term care facilities and correctional facilities.

“This is an enormous undertaking with a number of crucial considerations,” Levine said. “But one thing is clear, in Vermont, we’ll be ready for the vaccine before the vaccine is ready for us.”

The full Vermont proposal was submitted to the CDC along with an executive summary.

A FIRST STEPLevine said having a safe and effective vaccine would begin to provide large-scale immunity to the disease, but that will only come over time.

“We see every day what it means to have a highly infectious disease spread without a vaccine available to keep it in check,” he said. “I encourage everyone to get vaccinated when it’s available to them.”

But he added that the current approach of maintaining social distancing, washing hands; wearing a mask when near others and quarantining when required under the state’s COVID-19 response plan will have to continue simultaneously with any vaccination distribution rollout.

Adding to the complexity, Levine said, is that most leading candidate vaccines being developed require two doses. That will in turn require record keeping and follow-up measures to ensure the vaccines are effective.

HAZARD PAYScott and Pieciak also provided more details about the second round of funding for the Frontline Employee Hazard Pay Grant Program, which was passed by the Legislature.

This round expands the types of employers who are now eligible to apply and includes employees who worked for an eligible employer last spring during the worst of the pandemic in Vermont but are no longer working for that employer.

“I want to thank the Legislature for their work to expand this program,” said Governor Scott. “This phase recognizes some of the forgotten heroes of last spring: the people who kept us fed, housed our most vulnerable, cared for our children, and so much more. I appreciate the work of so many Vermonters to help us through this once-in-a-century crisis and know we have more work to do to help families recover from the impacts.”

The first round of the Hazard Pay Grant Program distributed approximately $28 million to those primarily in the healthcare and human services fields. The first round covered approximately 370 employer applications, equating to approximately 15,650 employees who received a grant.

The second round expands the employer type to include sectors such as pharmacies, grocery stores and certain retail positions, and appropriates an additional $22.5 million. The program will be administered by the Department of Financial Regulation, in consultation with the Agency of Human Services.

The program requires eligible employers to identify current and former employees who meet eligibility criteria.

For example, the employee must have worked a certain number of hours between March 13 and May 15, and had an increased exposure to COVID-19.

Employees are eligible to receive payments of either $1,200 or $2,000, depending on the number of hours worked and other eligibility criteria.

Grants will be awarded through an online application process and funds will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis until the program’s funding is depleted. Approved employers will receive their award amount for distribution to current employees, and former employees will be contacted directly by the Department of Financial Regulation to continue the application and receive a direct payment.

Former employees who were in eligible positions but no longer work for the company were advised to contact their former employer.

A webinar on the program for employers is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26 at 3 p.m. A link to the webinar can be found on the Hazard Pay Grant Program website.

Online applications will be accepted beginning Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 9 a.m. via the Hazard Pay Grant Program website.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three NENI newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican and the former North Adams Transcript.


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