MONTPELIER — Even as Vermont continues to lead the nation in vaccination against COVID-19, the rapid spread of the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has state leaders calling on the state’s 90,000-plus eligible but unvaccinated residents to roll up their sleeves.
“Anyone who is not vaccinated is at risk. With a more contagious variant there is higher risk than ever before,” Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the delta variant accounts for 83 percent of U.S. cases of the coronavirus — up from 50 percent as of July 3.
The state saw 89 new cases of COVID-19 last week, compared to 54 last week, and the majority of those cases are unvaccinated persons, Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said in his weekly presentation of COVID statistics.
Vermont also saw its first COVID death this month during the past week. That brings the state’s pandemic death toll to 259.
Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet spent much of Tuesday’s weekly media briefing touting the merits of a federal infrastructure proposal that could mean millions of dollars for Vermont highways, bridges, broadband, deployment and wastewater systems.
Scott, who met with President Joe Biden at the White House last Wednesday as part of a bipartisan group of mayors and governors, said they “had a candid conversation about the package and how would help our respective states and cities.”
“I told the president we have a great need here in Vermont,” in particular addressing deferred maintenance, Scott said. “But we need as much flexibility as possible for states,” he added, noting that Vermont’s needs are different from its neighbors.
Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Public Service Commissioner June Tierney all spoke to how the infrastructure bill would prove transformative in their areas of concern.
Tierney said as the state’s nine communications union districts (CUDs) work to bridge the high-speed access gap for about 54,000 unserved or underserved Vermonters with $150 million in federal funds as leverage, the state will need more dollars to finish the work and address the cost of service.
The estimated cost for foundational work alone is between $362 million and $439 million, Tierney said. To get to a statewide standard of 100 mbps sending and receiving speed would bring the price tag to $1 billion.
“The framework [of the infrastructure bill] acknowledges that broadband is infrastructure, she said. “It signals a forward step ... that Washington is finally starting to get the message that broadband is a necessity.”
Flynn said the bill would help the state address needed maintenance for bridges and highways, promote the use of electric vehicles, and fund improvements to rail lines and airports. It would also broaden the state’s public transit offerings, assuring Vermonters have “access to job opportunities, support those in recovery and ensure residents have mobility to essential services,” he said.
Moore pointed to the benefits of improving the state’s water treatment and wastewater management for the environment, as well as the benefits that brownfields remediation dollars would have for contaminated properties in every city and town in the state.
Between 2010 and 2020 in Vermont, extreme weather events caused more than $1 billion in damages, Moore said. Infrastructure dollars would help the state become more resilient, she said.
Scott said the bill would be a “moral victory for a polarized nation.”
“Coming together with a major bipartisan piece of legislation would help us take a step toward unity,” Scott said. “It’s important that Washington proves to the American people that when we share a common goal, we can deliver results.”
While Canada is opening its borders to vaccinated Americans next month, the U.S. has yet to offer clear guidance on whether it will open its side of the border at the same time. Scott said he’s seeking clarification on that.
In a call with the White House and U.S. governors on Tuesday, Scott said he asked about when visitors will be allowed to cross into the U.S. “Unfortunately they continued to defer which is disappointing, because I believe it’s past time to open the border,” he said.
Scott said those concerns were echoed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Maine Gov. Janet Mills, leading him to request a briefing for all northern border governors on the situation.
“So stay tuned,” he said.