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Vermont News Updates For Friday, August 7

Turkeys
Peter Crabtree
/
For VPR
Wild turkeys make their way through a Shaftsbury meadow last week.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, an outbreak of COVID-19 among Vermont inmates housed in Mississippi and more for Friday, August 7.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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Two more cases of the coronavirus

The state confirmed two more cases of COVID-19 Friday, one each in Chittenden and Rutland counties. Another 914 people were tested and had negative results. To date, 100,962 people have been tested for the coronavirus.

One person is currently hospitalized with the disease, and 58 people have died in Vermont after contracting COVID-19. The Health Department currently monitoring 1,004 travelers to Vermont.

- Henry Epp and Elodie Reed

COVID-positive Vermont inmates housed in Mississippi remain symptom-free

Interim Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker says he’s asked the owner of a private prison in Mississippi to test all staff and inmates at the facility for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, 146 Vermont inmates being held at the Mississippi prison tested positive for the coronavirus.

Baker says the company that owns of the prison, CoreCivic, didn’t appreciate the threat posed by the outbreak.

“CoreCivic will not get their arms around the outbreak if they do not determine the level of spread amongst the remaining staff and the other inmate population,” he said.

According to Baker, none of the Vermont inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 are exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

Baker sent a Vermont doctor to Mississippi on Thursday to examine the Vermont inmates.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont inmates housed in Mississippi on lockdown, no access to phones

The 219 Vermont inmates incarcerated at a private prison in MIssissippi have not had access to telephones since a massive outbreak of COVID-19 was identified in their units a week ago.

Emily Tredeau, the managing attorney for the Prisoners’ Rights Office of the Vermont Defender General says her staff has not been contacted by Mississippi inmates since the outbreak was identified. In an email, she called situation a “big problem.”

Nearly two-thirds of the Vermont inmates in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Vermont Department of Corrections has confirmed that Vermont's three housing units in Mississippi are on lockdown, and that inmates there do not have access to communication devices in their cells. That's in contrast to Vermont inmates housed in-state, who can message and call family on tablets from inside their cells.

In an email, a DOC spokesperson said the department hopes to have new protocol in place for inmate communication by early next week.

- Emily Corwin

Some teachers remain worried about COVID and in-person learning

Schools across Vermont are preparing to welcome students back to the classroom in September. But some teachers are questioning whether new safety precautions will actually mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

Amy Braun teaches kindergarten and first grade at Rochester Elementary School.

“I think there’s a big push to get things back to ‘normal,’ and I don’t know that the way things were is the way it needs to be moving forward in a pandemic,” Braun said.

Gov. Phil Scott is urging school districts return to in-person learning this fall. But local leaders will have final say over whether to bring students back to the classroom.

A new VPR-Vermont PBS poll found that Vermonters are split over whether schools should reopen to in-person learning.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld 

Burlington Mayor writes letter to UVM president about in-person classes, COVID-19 concerns

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is calling on the University of Vermont to institute more COVID-19 testing and stricter rules for students returning to the city this month.

Weinberger, in a letter to UVM President Suresh Garimella, outlined a series of concerns he had with the university’s plan to reopen for in-person classes.

The majority the letter focused on testing — Weinberger wrote he was concerned that UVM changed its plan to test all students twice a week to only testing once a week. He also said UVM needed to commit sharing its test results daily and keep the city informed of any off-campus students who test positive.

Weinberger also urged UVM to develop a plan to deal with parties and other off-campus behavior that might violate public health orders.

Students are supposed to begin returning to Burlington in about two weeks.

In a written statement, UVM said it welcomes further discussions with city and it's "carefully and aggressively" taking steps to follow the state's reopening guidance.

- Liam Elder-Connors

More from VPR: Unclear If Returning UVM Students Are Following Public Health Guidance

Dartmouth agrees to launch external investigation in response to student's hunger strike

In response to a Dartmouth student's hunger strike, the college now says it will launch what it calls an external investigation into her allegations of sexual misconduct.

Last winter, Maha Hasan Alshawi, a Dartmouth grad student, accused two professors of the misconduct, and of grade retaliation.

After an internal review, the college declined to take the matter further, leading Alshawi to request an independent investigation.

To back up her demand, she began a hunger strike on July 14.

On Aug. 3, she began to refuse liquids as well.

Dartmouth student Attiaya Khan is a member of Alshawi's support team.

“She's lost a lot of weight. She's in a lot of pain. She has trouble breathing. She's been pretty transparent about that,” Khan said. “And it's not been a great situation in that regard.”

Dartmouth says the findings of the external investigation will be made public.  

But Alshawi says until she's informed – directly — of a start date and the investigator's name, her hunger strike will continue.  

- Betty Smith

Norwich University to welcome back first students Saturday

Norwich University will welcome over 400 students to its campus Saturday.

This is the first of six arrival dates for the college in Northfield. The school says it will create what it calls a "campus quarantine" environment for the next eight days, for students who are required to quarantine under state guidelines.

More students will arrive throughout the month of August, before classes begin on Aug. 31. Norwich officials say they are restricting the campus to about 70% of its capacity, bringing back about 1,800 of the usual 2,500 students.

- Henry Epp

State has tested over 100,000 people for COVID, though not Gov. Scott

Vermont has tested more than 100,000 people for COVID-19, but Gov. Phil Scott is not among them.

Scott says he checks his temperature daily, and monitors himself for symptoms of the disease.

“So, at this point in time, I haven’t felt it necessary to have a test,” he said. “I’d rather leave those tests for others who are in need.”

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak says widespread COVID-19 testing in Vermont has helped the state keep close tabs on the spread of the disease, and outpace the rest of the nation when it comes to mitigation.

“New case growth was just about flat compared to last week, with 39 new cases,” he said. “And Vermont continues to hold the distinction of having the lowest positivity rate in the country.”

Moving forward, however, Commissioner of Health Mark Levine says Vermont may soon encounter new hurdles when it comes to testing residents for COVID-19 as demand for testing supplies across the country is outstripping supplies.

“As many states struggle with a resurgence of cases, we can expect, possibly predict, a slowdown or shortage of the supplies needed to both collect samples from people at test sites, and to analyze the specimens in the lab,” Levine said.

The health commissioner added that Vermont is stockpiling testing supplies to avoid a slowdown in testing turnaround times.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Ariel Quiros expected to enter guilty plea next week

The man accused of defrauding foreign investors with a plan to build a biotech facility in Newport is expected to enter a guilty plea next week.

Ariel Quiros was scheduled to change his plea Friday, but that was delayed. VTDigger reports that the federal judge presiding over the case said there were several matters he wanted to resolved first, including a potential conflict involving Quiros' lawyer.

- Liam Elder-Connors

State employees expected to work remotely through end of year

Vermont's Agency of Administration says state employees who can work remotely should expect to do so at least through the end of the year.

Administration Secretary Susanne Young said Thursday that limiting the spread of COVID-19 while continuing to provide critical services to Vermonters is a priority, and flexible work schedules and worksites are key to that mission.

And Vermont's nonprofit hospitals, which are facing financial challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic, have filed "recovery"  budget requests with the Green Mountain Care Board for the coming fiscal year.

- Associated Press

Woodstock Area Relief Fund raises $515,000 for local pandemic assistance

Residents of Woodstock and surrounding towns have their own local pandemic assistance fund. Its purpose is to help with essential expenses like rent, food, medicine and childcare. 

The Woodstock Area Relief Fund is modeled on the local recovery effort that followed Tropical Storm Irene.

Residents of Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret and Reading are also eligible to receive the relief money.

Charlie Kimbell is spokesperson for the fund.

“$515,000 is what we've raised,” Kimbell said. “And of that amount of money, we've spent $355,000. “

The remaining funds will be disbursed in a second round, in part to help make up for the loss of federal pandemic unemployment money. 

- Betty Smith

"Open Farm Week" still on for next week, with adaptations

An annual event designed to connect consumers with the farms that feed them will happen next week, with some adaptations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During "Open Farm Week," the public is invited to tour participating farms to learn about Vermont's local food scene.

Tara Pereira is executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit that promotes ties between farms, chefs and consumers. She says organizers decided that Open Farm Week should be held this year, despite the pandemic.

“We went back and forth actually on, should we do it this year or should we not?” Pereira said. “But then the whole committee, decided, you know, farms don't shut down, and it's really important for folks to see where their food comes from and to really engage with our farmers.”

This year, however, some events have shifted online. Others will be held on the farm with the appropriate physical distancing.

- John Dillon

Windsor considering renaming street referencing judge who enslaved a woman

The town of Windsor is considering what to do about a street named for a colonial-era judge who kept a woman as a slave.

Jacob Street is named after Vermont Supreme Court Justice Stephen Jacob. Records show that in 1783 Jacob bought and enslaved Dinah Mason. The Vermont Constitution, written six years earlier, outlawed the keeping of adult slaves.

There's been general agreement that changing the street name is warranted.

But it turns out the process is complicated.

Heather Prebish is the select board chair.  

“It's not a matter of just deciding we're going to change a street name, but rather, you know, contacting the appropriate authorities: The mortgage company, property deeds, titles, 9-1-1,” Prebish said. “You know, an address change, you think on the surface not really a big deal, but there really is more to it. And to some degree there is a cost associated. And I think that was another concern for some residents.”

A committee will study the issue and report back to the select board.

- Betty Smith

More from VPR: Defying Vt. Constitution, Windsor Judge Enslaved Woman In Early 1800s

Montpelier police ID BLM mural vandalism suspect, who has since died

Montpelier Police used DNA evidence to identify a suspect in the vandalism of a Black Lives Matter mural in June. The local prosecutor says he had enough evidence to charge the man, but that he had died shortly after the incident.

The vandalism occurred in the early morning of June 4 when someone defaced the mural that volunteers had earlier painted on the street in front of the Statehouse.

Police obtained a DNA sample from a spray paint can after a surveillance video revealed a suspect discarding the can.

The DNA was analyzed and matched with 56-year-old Fred Seavey. State's Attorney Rory Thibault says he had probable cause to charge Seavey, but that he had died on July 1. News reports indicate that Seavey died in a car crash on Interstate 89 in Waterbury.

- John Dillon

More from Vermont Edition: Art And Activism: What Public Art Means In A Moment Of Racial Reckoning

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