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Vermont News Updates For Thursday, July 16

Mark Hughes speaks at a podium at Burlington's City Hall
Liam Elder-Connors
Mark Hughes, with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, speaks at a press conference in Burlington, where the city and more than 30 community organizations declared racism a public health crisis.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, Burlington School District's plans for in-person classes in the fall , and more for Thursday, July 16.

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The latest coronavirus data:


Vermont Department of Health reports nine new cases of COVID-19

The Vermont Department of Health reported nine new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, six of which were identified in Chittenden County. Two cases were identified in Lamoille County and one in Caledonia County.

To date, the state has tested 79,040 people for the new coronavirus. Currently, 85 people are being monitored as close contacts of a confirmed case, and 1,352 people are being voluntarily monitored while quarantining after travel.

There are 20 people hospitalized with symptoms under investigation, and five people are hospitalized with confirmed cases of the illness.

To date, Vermont has seen 1,325 confirmed cases of the virus.

- Abagael Giles

Burlington declares racism a public health emergency

Vermont’s largest city has declared racism a public health emergency.

Advocates had called on Burlington leaders to issue a declaration in the weeks since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. State data show Black individuals were disproportionally infected by COVID-19.

The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, an advocacy organization led by people of color, spearheaded the effort.

Mark Hughes, coordinator for the Racial Justice Alliance, says while the declaration is significant, there’s still a lot more to do to fight systemic racism.

“Don’t start running victory laps. I want to just haul everybody in that are running around that track, let you know that line you ran through was not the finish line, that’s where you’re supposed to stop because we’re getting ready to start,” he said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger worked with the Racial Justice Alliance to develop the declaration and immediate actions the city could take to begin addressing racism.

The city also worked to recruit more than 30 organizations and businesses in Chittenden County, including Burton Snowboards, Housing Vermont and the University of Vermont Medical Center,  to join the declaration.

UVM Medical Center President Stephen Leffler says the hospital will start collecting data on how Black patients are being impacted by illness compared to white patients.

“And to identify other health equity trends beyond outcomes. For example, we know that patients who identify as Black have lower rates of mammography that those who identify as white,” Leffler said.

Nationally, more than 60 local and state governments, including Boston, Denver and the state of Wisconsin, have declared racism a public health emergency.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Update 07/17/2020: This post has been updated to include more information about the development of the city's declaration.

More from Brave Little State: Vermonters Of Color, How Can The State, And Its People, Support You?

Tribal leaders push for adding Abenaki names to state park signs

Tribal leaders in Vermont are pushing for a measure that would add Abenaki place names to signs in state parks.

Under a bill passed by the House this session, the Abenaki names would be added to new or replacement signs in all state parks.

Don Stevens is chief of the Nulhegan band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation. 

“The language shows that we're still here, the Abenaki people are still here and there's actually place names before the English terms were there,” Stevens said. “So it shows and promotes our culture."

The bill passed the House in June. It's now before the Senate, which is set to reconvene in late August.

- Henry Epp 

Discordant results between clinic, state tests in Manchester-area outbreak

State officials gave an update Thursday on the emerging outbreak of COVID-19 in the Manchester area.

The Manchester clinic that did the original testing uses a different method than the state, and Health Commissioner Mark Levine says so far, results are not matching up.

He says only a third of the original positive tests turned out to also be positive in the state's testing.

“It’s really difficult at this point in time to understand how best to deal with these discordant results, because they are truly breaking new ground,” Levine said. “We are actively involved in discussions and getting guidance from the CDC regarding this new area.”

Hundreds of additional people have been tested over the past two days. Levine added that the situation was “not a false alarm.”

“There are going to be cases in this geographic part of the state,” he said. “And we want people to take seriously the advice that we’ve given them based on their prior test result.”

The health commissioner says he expects to have more information at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Friday.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

More from VPR: 'Our Bubble Is Popped': Apparent Outbreak Puts Manchester, Vt. Area On Edge

Abenaki tribal members can receive free fishing, hunting licenses under new law

Members of the four Abenaki tribes recognized by the state of Vermont can now receive free hunting and fishing licenses, under a bill signed by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this month.

Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan band says the move is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many tribal members are struggling economically.

"People who are unemployed that might have to pay for a license, they won't have to decide whether they're buying a meal or paying for a license,” Stevens said. “And if people are trying to feed their family and they might not have a license, we don't want them to be in trouble for doing that as well."

Stevens says the new law gives Abenaki tribal members benefits that are already available to other Vermonters: Veterans and those with disabilities are eligible for hunting and fishing licenses at no cost.

Read the full story.

- Henry Epp

Record number of requests for early-voting ballots

Requests for early-voting ballots in Vermont have set an all-time record.

Secretary of State Jim Condos says there have been more than 100,000 ballot requests, with three and half weeks to go before the primary election.

Condos thinks concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic are driving the surge in early voting this year.

"I think absolutely it is. What's driving our decision-making are two factors: One, that we're trying to protect Vermonters' right to vote, and two, we're protecting Vermonters’ health and safety, and that means not only the voters but also town clerks and poll workers,” he said.

The highest primary election turnout in recent years was 2016, when a total of 119,000 people voted, including all in-person ballots. Condos says this could be a record year for primary turnout in the state.

- Bob Kinzel

Labor Department addressing cases of unemployment fraud

The Vermont Department of Labor is stepping up its efforts to deal with a growing number of fraudulent claims for unemployment insurance.

In the past four months, the Labor Department has received almost 140,000 claims for benefits. During that time, there were almost 500 cases of fraud.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says many of the fraud cases involve criminals who have stolen personal information in one of the big online data breaches that have occurred in recent years.

“A lot of times, what happens is they'll sit on that information until the right moment,” Harrington said. “And this is one of the those right moments, where they can now sell that information to crime syndicates or rings and those people can use it to do things like file insurance fraud."    

Harrington says his office is using an independent contractor to help identify cases of fraud.

- Bob Kinzel

Waitsfield Select Board votes against mask mandate

Earlier this week, the Waitsfield Select Board voted 3-2 against a resolution that would have made it mandatory to wear a mask in town.

But following the decision, town health officer Fred Messer issued an emergency public health order requiring masks. 

That prompted the select board to consult the town's attorney, who said the health officer can't unilaterally impose a mask requirement.

Still, Messer says members of his community are concerned.

“I’ve got a lot of emails in the last 48 hours from senior citizens in Waitsfield, in fact the whole Mad River Valley, who are just plain scared to death,” Messer said.

The nearby towns of Warren, Waterbury, and Stowe have local mask mandates, as do other towns and municipalities around the state.

- Anna Van Dine

Labor Commissioner: $200M used from Vermont Unemployment Trust Fund, $300M left

In the last four months during the COVID -19 pandemic, Vermont's Unemployment Trust Fund has paid out almost $200 million in benefits to roughly 100,000 Vermonters.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says the fund still has a balance of just over $300 million, and with that much money remaining, it’s unlikely the state will have to borrow money from the federal government to replenish the fund.

“We have dipped into those funds quite a bit, but there are many other states out there that have found themselves in much different and more dire situations, so states have already begun borrowing money from the federal government to help replenish their trust funds,” Harrington said.

Harrington says the last time Vermont had to borrow to replenish its trust fund was during the 2008 recession.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont joins other states pushing for electric trucks, buses

The state of Vermont is joining 15 states and the District of Columbia in a push to electrify buses and trucks.

The agreement calls for all new medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales to be zero emission by 2050. Gov. Phil Scott says the agreement is an important step forward to increase the number of electric vehicles on the state's roads and help the state meet its long-term emissions goals.

Transportation accounts for 44% of Vermont's total greenhouse gas emissions. Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles include large pickup trucks and vans, delivery trucks, box trucks, long-haul delivery trucks and school and transit buses.

- Associated Press

More from Brave Little State: How Can Vermonters Drive Less?

Burlington School District announces it will hold in-person classes this fall

The Burlington School District is planning to hold in-person classes this fall and will finalize its reopening strategy by Aug. 4.

Superintendent Tom Flanagan said the current plan is to open most schools using an alternating schedule where groups of students only attend in-person classes on specific days of the week.

But Flanagan said the district is prepared to adjust its plans depending on the pandemic.

"We have to be ready at an individual school level, at an individual classroom level, at a district level, to say, 'Hey, we're in a good place. We may be able to move to full in-person,' or, 'We have a concern and need to drop back to all online,'" Flanagan said.

Students will get daily temperature checks and be screened for symptoms of COVID-19. Cloth facial coverings will also be required and no visitors will be allowed in schools.

- Liam Elder-Connors

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