Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the Burlington mayor's veto of proposed police oversight board, the start of the legislative session and more for Tuesday, Jan. 5.
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The latest coronavirus data:
The Vermont Department of Health on Tuesday reported 165 new COVID-19 cases.
State officials say five more Vermonters have died, bringing the pandemic death toll to 149.
Of the new cases announced Tuesday, 66 were in Chittenden County. Several Vermont counties – including Windsor, Bennington and Rutland – saw more than ten new cases. Vermont’s most populous county has seen more than 450 cases in the last two weeks alone.
The state on Tuesday surpassed 8,000 cases since the pandemic began.
The seven-day average positivity rate – that is: out of all COVID tests conducted, how many came back positive – is at 2.8%.
- Abagael Giles
State officials say cases are on the rise
Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in Vermont.
Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said that over the past week, Vermont saw its average daily case count jump by more than 40%.
“Today, Vermont will also report its 8,000th case since the start of the pandemic, with the state adding an additional 1,000 cases over the past 10 days,” Pieciak said.
Pieciak said his department is still in the process of determining what effect holiday gatherings will have on coronavirus trends in the coming weeks.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Health commissioner expects new COVID strain will soon arrive in Vt.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine says it’s only a matter of time before a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 arrives in Vermont.
Levine said Tuesday Vermont has yet to document a case of the new COVID variant.
However, he said New York State confirmed a case of the new strain in Saratoga Springs on Monday.
“We will be regularly sending samples to the CDC to determine their genetic sequence, and the first of these were already sent several weeks ago,” Levine said.
Levine said the new COVID variant does not appear to cause higher rates of hospitalization or deaths.
But he said the new strain heightens the importance of mask wearing and physical distancing.
- Peter Hirschfeld
So far, Vermont is on track to have enough hospital beds
A surge in coronavirus cases is testing the limits of hospitals across the country.
But health officials in Vermont say hospitals here will have enough beds to care for anyone who needs one.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said Tuesday: “We remain confident that even if Vermont does see an increase in cases from the holidays, that our hospitals will have the necessary resources to tend to everyone who needs care.”
Pieciak aid over the past two weeks, Vermont has seen more out-of-state traffic than at any point during the pandemic.
But he said it’s still too early to know whether the state will see a significant post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases.
"We're now 11 days from the Christmas holiday, but we need a little bit more time to understand the potential impact of that event, plus another 10 days or so to see the full impact from New Year's Eve, as well," Pieciak said.
State health officials are asking anyone who attended an in-person holiday gathering to get tested for COVID-19.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Did you gather over the holidays? State officials say: 'Get tested'
State health officials are urging anyone who attended in-person gatherings over Christmas or New Year’s to get tested for COVID-19.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Tuesday widespread testing will help Vermont avoid a post-holiday surge in coronavirus cases.
“Testing is really the only way we have to exercise what we are calling our containment strategy. It’s how we make sure that everyone who tests positive can then isolate and identify their close contacts so they can stay home and away from other people,” Levine said.
Vermont has seen a modest increase in daily COVID case counts over the past week.
But Levine said it’s still too early to determine whether case counts will rise significantly as a result of holiday gatherings.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Federal law enforcement officers make arrest related to possible threats around vaccinations
A Burlington man has been arrested by federal law enforcement officers over possible threats made around COVID-19 vaccinations.
Aaron Loucks, 27, was arrested by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Monday.
The Times Argus reports Loucks has recently been involved in several violent incidents and had purchased multiple firearms.
ATF agents say he also exhibited a deteriorating mental status, believing COVID-19 screenings are part of a government conspiracy to control the population. Court records show officers found concerning notes from Loucks listing "vaccine deceivers," like the postal service and police.
Loucks was set to appear in a Burlington court Tuesday on weapons charges.
- Matthew Smith
The Vermont Department of Health has decided which residents should be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Health care workers, first responders and staff and residents of long-term care facilities are the first to receive the vaccine.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Tuesday older Vermonters and people with underlying health conditions will go next.
“First, individuals age 75 and older, then ages 65-to-74, followed by people in a younger age range who have higher-risk conditions,” Levine said.
About 17,000 Vermonters have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Levine says vaccines have been administered in about half of the state’s long-term care facilities, and to a quarter of the health care workers.
Vaccine delivery to Vermont is behind schedule
Doses of the COVID-19 vaccine aren’t arriving in Vermont as quickly as state health officials had anticipated.
Vermont has received about 30,000 doses of the vaccine so far.
But Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Mike Smith said Tuesday he expected those numbers to be higher by now.
“We’ve been given some numbers. We’ll see those numbers hold true. They’re not what we still expected – they’re about a 1,000-shorta-week of what we expected.”
Smith said Vermont is expecting to receive an additional 9,000 doses of vaccine over the next week.
He said the state has administered the first dose of the COVID vaccine to about 17,000 Vermonters so far.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Senator Patrick Leahy says President Trump is asking Vice President Mike Pence to defy the Constitution when Congress meets Wednesday to certify November election results.
Pence will preside over a joint meeting of Congress to count the votes of the Electoral College. Joe Biden won by a margin of 306-to-232.
The president is publicly urging Pence to overturn the election, by rejecting the tally from a number of states.
Leahy said it's clear that the Constitution doesn't give the vice president this authority: “What he's trying to get Vice President Pence to do is to defy the Constitution and break the law. I don't think Mike Pence will do that."
A group of roughly a dozen Republican senators is expected to challenge the Electoral College votes from several states.
Leahy says he is extremely disappointed that a dozen of his colleagues are working to overturn the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
The GOP senators plan to ask Congress to throw out the vptes from a number of states based on unsubstantiated cases of voter fraud.
"I can't understand what they're doing," Leahy said. "It makes the United States look incompetent in the eyes of the rest of the world. They're trying to get us to act like the dictatorships that we always condemn."
D.C. braces for Trump rally
Washington, D.C. is bracing Wednesday morning for a large rally supporting President Trump's efforts. Marchers plan to go to the Capitol Building demanding action.
Leahy says the situation reminds him of quote "a third world dictatorship."
“We're a democracy and to have a president – even though it's his last few days in office – trying to subvert the Constitution is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime," Leahy said.
Leahy says he's confident that Congress will certify Biden's election on a relatively strong bipartisan vote.
- Bob Kinzel
By a one-vote margin, the Burlington City Council failed Monday night to override Mayor Miro Weinberger's veto of a proposal to create a new civilian police oversight board.
Efforts to increase civilian oversight of the Burlington Police Department have been debated for years.
Momentum for reform grew last summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Last month, the council approved a plan to create a new panel with the broad power to investigative police misconduct and disciplinary officers – including the chief.
Progressives who led the recent effort, like City Councilor Perri Freeman, said it’s frustrating that action keeps getting delayed.
“Some of these major issues, like subpoena powers, holding hearings, independent investigation and discipline, why kick those down the road?” Freeman said.
Weinberger says he vetoed the proposal, in part, because he thinks the mayor and chief should still play a role in police discipline.
- Liam Elder-Connors
Incoming Senate President Becca Balint says paid family and medical leave is not among her top priorities for the legislative session that starts tomorrow.
Lawmakers passed a paid leave bill last year, but failed to override a veto from Gov. Phil Scott.
Balint says she'll turn to other issues this session. “We've been down this road a number of times,” Balint said. “I care deeply about this issue. I do think it's something that Vermonters really need. I want to make sure that we're spending our time and energy on things that we can actually get passed."
In the House, incoming Speaker Jill Krowinski says she'll take her cues from the incoming Biden administration – to see whether paid leave is taken up at the federal level.
- Henry Epp
Vermont's incoming Senate Minority Leader wants lawmakers to seriously address broadband access this coming session.
Franklin County Senator Randy Brock now leads the chamber's Republican minority.
He said Vermont can boost broadband with short-term fixes, like adding more high-bandwidth wireless signals as more cable or fiber is built out. But Brock says the state needs a long-term solution.
"One of the things I think we should explore this year is whether or not we should bring back the Vermont Telecommunications Authority as a separate entity with a direct focus on getting broadband out and creating a ‘broadband czar’ to oversee that,” Brock said.
Beyond broadband, Senator Brock said lawmakers must address a “critical" budget shortfall without raising taxes.
Brock calls for revisiting past reforms around child care
Brock also said addressing the state’s child care needs – another priority – may require undoing past reforms.
Vermont updated its child care regulations in 2016, requiring more education for providers, among other changes.
Brock, a Franklin County Republican, said those requirements have put child care out of reach for some — and lawmakers may need to reconsider.
“We need to look at practical solutions, that if it is not available and not affordable and we don't have the staffing to be able to provide it in the way that the statutes seem today to require, then we have to rethink it,” Brock said.
Brock said he'll also use his leadership role in the Senate to introduce a voluntary paid family leave initiative.
An effort last session to provide guaranteed paid leave benefits to most workers through a payroll tax was vetoed by the governor.
- Matthew Smith
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