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Vermont News Updates For Friday, August 28

Paper hearts in furniture store window
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Paper hearts in the window at Emersons Furniture in Brattleboro offer words of hope and friendly reminders.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, the return of students to Vermont college campuses and more for Friday, August 28.

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The latest coronavirus data:


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

The Vermont Department of Health reported three new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of cases identified to date in the state to 1,589. There are currently three people hospitalized with confirmed cases of the illness. Eight people are hospitalized with symptoms under investigation.

Vermont reported 50 new cases of COVID-19 over the last seven days, and currently has the lowest infection rate in the country.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said Vermont has averaged the lowest per-capita infection rate over the duration of the pandemic.

He said the percentage of tests that yield a positive result in Vermont is also the lowest in the nation.

"So really, against almost any metric that you can measure Vermont by, whether throughout the entire pandemic or more recently, Vermont continues to be the best in the nation," Pieciak said Friday.

To date, 1,400 people have recovered from known cases, and 58 people have died. So far, 126,755 people have been tested for an active case.

As of Friday, 68 people were being monitored for symptoms, as close contacts of known cases.

- Abagael Giles and Peter Hirschfeld

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

Congressman Welch calls Vermont's early voting a success

Congressman Peter Welch said Vermont's positive experience with voting by mail in the recent Primary can serve as a model for other states.

A record number of Vermonters cast their ballots by mail using the early voting option and state officials had most of the results by the end of election night.

Local officials said a decision allowing them to tabulate their early ballots before election day took a lot of pressure off of them.

“So what that tells me is that if your local officials are on the level, you can get this done,” Welch said. “I mean, what the president  is doing is just trying to de-legitimize the outcome of the election before the votes are even cast, let alone counted." 

Early voting for the November election starts in a little over three weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

State to roll out hazard pay for eligible frontline workers

More than 6,000 Vermont employees will be getting a total of $10 million in hazard pay for their work during the coronavirus pandemic.

A program established by the Legislature earlier this year allocated federal coronavirus relief funds to workers on the frontlines of the state’s coronavirus response.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said eligible employees will begin receiving hazard pay benefits next week.

“This is program for certain public safety, public health, health care and human services employers whose employees were engaged in activities substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to COVID-19,” Smith said.

Employees needed to have an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 as a result of their work in order to be eligible for the pay.

Eligible workers will receive a maximum of $1,200 in hazard pay grants. 

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld



State to extend increased food assistance for families

Low-income families in Vermont will get at least one more month of increased benefits for food assistance.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said his agency received clearance from the federal government to keep supplemental benefits in place through September.

“It will not be a permanent change to households’ monthly benefits, but it is critical to provide eligible Vermont families with additional resources during this time of uncertainty so they can put food on their tables,” Smith said.

Families eligible for the so-called Three Squares food benefit program have been receiving increased benefits since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

Smith said Vermonters have received a total of $16 million dollars in supplemental food benefits over the past six months.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld


Vermont Department of Health urges Vermonters to disregard latest CDC guidance

The Vermont Department of Health is urging Vermonters to buck the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC issued new guidance this week that says asymptomatic people should not get tested for COVID-19, even if they’ve been in close contact with someone known to have contracted the disease.

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine says Vermonters should disregard that advice.

“Our experience is that people who may have been in close contact with someone with the virus may be at risk of having contracted it and they can themselves shed virus before they show symptoms,” Levine said.

Levine said Vermont’s high-volume testing protocols have helped the state suppress the coronavirus.

And he said people who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes should get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms of the disease.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld


So far, return of college students hasn't brought spike in COVID-19 cases

The reopening of colleges and universities across Vermont doesn’t appear to be having any immediate impact on COVID-19 infection rates in the state.

That’s according to Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak, who said only 19 returning students have tested positive for the disease so far.

“I think this is indicative of students following the pre-arrival quarantine guidance. They’re not coming with the virus as frequently as we thought they might, so … all of this, at least for the transition back to Vermont, is all a very good story so far,” Pieciak said.

Colleges and universities located in Vermont expect to welcome more than twenty-one thousand students back campus this fall.

Pieciak said more than 40% of those students have already arrived.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld

No plan to reinstate requirement to look for work

Gov. Phil Scott says he has no immediate plans to reinstitute a policy that requires people on unemployment to actively look for work.

Scott dropped the work requirement at the beginning of the pandemic.

And he said the number of people without jobs still far exceeds the number of jobs available in the state.

“So when it gets closer, when we start seeing more jobs available and the number of those unemployed comes down, then we’ll reinstate that requirement to look for work,” Scott said.

Scott said about 40,000 Vermonters are unemployed right now. But he says according to the Department of Labor, there are only about 5,000 jobs available among Vermont employers.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld

Scott Administration weighs flu vaccine mandate for school children

The Scott administration is considering a flu vaccine mandate for Vermont school children.

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said an active flu season in Vermont could compound the public health threat posed by COVID-19.

“As a physician and a public health chief I would be shirking my responsibility to protect the health of Vermonters if we did not at least explore the merits, as well as the weaknesses of every potential public health intervention,” Levine said.

Levine said he hasn’t yet decided whether to move forward with a vaccine requirement, but that a policy discussion is underway.

Levine said fewer than 40% of children between aged of 13 and 18 received a flu vaccine last year.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld

Tourism was down as much as 60% during the pandemic

A new analysis of out-of-state visitors to Vermont shows just how devastating the pandemic has been to the state’s tourism industry.

In May, the number of people visiting the state was down by 60% over last year’s numbers.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said tourism traffic rebounded slightly in July and August.

“But obviously still significantly down from a normal summer, so certainly more help is on the way, or needs to be on the way, for the lodging and tourism industry,” Pieciak said.

The analysis is based on the number of mobile phones in Vermont that originate from outside the state.

Gov. Phil Scott has said he’s considering additional economic aid for restaurants and lodging businesses that have seen revenue plummet as a result of the pandemic.

More from VPR: Scott Administration Considers Flu Vaccine Mandate For Vermont Children

- Peter Hirschfeld

Welch calls for elimination of electoral college

Congressman Peter Welch says the time has come to do away with the electoral college and replace it with the popular election of the president.

He points that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received roughly 3 million votes more than president Trump, but Trump won a majority of votes in the Electoral College.

Welch said he used to oppose the popular vote plan because he thought it would hurt smaller states like Vermont, but he says he no longer feels this way.

“So much of the campaigning now is done on the airways and through social media so I think that issue is of less concern to me than it used to be and I do think majority rule is extremely important and we don't have it now,” Welch said.

Vermont is part of a coalition of states seeking to make this change for the 2024 election.

- Bob Kinzel


Welch calls for more federal relief for dairy farmers

Congressman Peter Welch says the future of dairy farming in Vermont could hinge on a federal cash grant program this fall.

Welch said the demand for most dairy products has fallen dramatically in the last few months with schools and restaurants closing.

He said the next federal stimulus package should include cash payments to dairy farmers.

“It was like a sledge hammer to the finances of our farmers so should there be some direct financial aid that would help mitigate the impact of COVID-related consequences and in fact that's the only aid that can really matter and help these farmers try to survive another day," Welch said.

Congress is expected to consider a new stimulus bill when it returns to Washington in two weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

Association of Africans Living in Vermont secures $300,000 USDA grant

A three-year grant of $300,000 has been awarded by the USDA to The Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

It will build on a decade of working with farmers from all over the world who are in Vermont through refugee resettlement programs.

Alisha Laramee is with the association's New Farms for New Americans project.  She said the grant will benefit more than the roughly 16 resettlement farmers who will learn new agricultural practices and how to access Vermont's food systems network through the program.

“By creating a group of leaders and mentors that will then be able to go disseminate that information among their communities, in their language, in the words they speak to the communities that they're a part of, you know, we could see a trickling effect of this that is bigger than one urban community garden,” Laramee said.

Many new American farmers work together with other households, so Laramee said that the program will benefit multiple families and even generations.

- Betty Smith


Bennington to paint Black Lives Matter mural

The town of Bennington will be the latest Vermont community showing its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, when a mural is painted in the center of town Sunday.

A public event is planned for 4 p.m., in front of the town office building and organizers are inviting anyone to come out to help apply the paint.

The mural will include rainbow colors to show support for the LGBTQ community, and the design includes a depiction of the Bennington Battle Monument.

The Selectboard approved the mural in July.

Organizers say the event will be COVID-19 safe and masks will be available. 

- Howard Weiss-Tisman


Congressman Peter Welch criticizes new CDC guidance about testing contacts

Congressman Peter Welch says he opposes a plan by the Centers for Disease Control to discourage testing some people who have been exposed to COVID-19, but are asymptomatic.

CDC Director Robert Redfield clarified the department's position on Thursday, after it drew a storm of controversy.

Redfield said that "testing may be considered for all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients."

Welch said contact testing is critical, in light of scientific evidence that shows people without symptoms can still be prolific spr­eaders of the virus.

“You know, that's a tool to get on top of the coronavirus, so the Trump Administration has just not done the job,” Welch said. “And the President obviously just doesn't take this seriously, like many of our governors do, thank goodness."  

Welch said the widespread availability of virus tests is also critical as students begin to return to college for the fall semester.

More from Vermont Edition: Rep. Peter Welch On 2nd COVID Relief Deal & Postal Service Woes

- Bob Kinzel

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