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Vermont Sees Lowest Active Case Count Since May

Gov. Phil Scott at podium during press conference
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On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott offered an update on his administration's response to COVID-19.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about coronavirus, the lieutenant governor debate and more for Tuesday, September 29.

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1. Vermont sees lowest active case count since May

On Tuesday, the Vermont Department of Health reported four new cases of COVID-19. Just one person is currently hospitalized with a confirmed case in Vermont.

The state reports it has tested 162,747 people for active cases.

The number of active cases of COVID-19 in Vermont is now the lowest it's been in months.

Over the past two weeks, Vermont has confirmed 50 new cases of COVID-19 in the state. Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said Vermont hasn't had a two-week total that low since May.

"So that gives you, again, an indication of how low our case count is, even with K-12 reopening, and higher education reopening," he said.

Pieciak said Vermont continues to have the lowest per capita infection rate of any state in the U.S.

However, health officials say they are closely monitoring what appears to be a resurgance of COVID-19 in Quebec.

Pieciak said the number of daily new infections in Quebec has increased six-fold since the beginning of September.

"You know, we talked a lot back in March and April about exponential growth, and when you kind of look at this trend here, you look at the number of cases week over week, they're getting pretty close to that, with cases almost doubling on a weekly basis," Pieciak said.

Government officials in Quebec recently instituted new restrictions intended to slow the growth of the outbreak.

Those restrictions have capped the size of social gatherings in private homes, and limited bars and restaurants in Montreal to take-out only for at least 28 days.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Health officials monitor possible outbreak at a Rutland nursing home

The Department of Health is monitoring a possible outbreak of COVID-19 at a nursing home in Rutland. Two staff members and one resident at Mountain View Center nursing home have tested positive for the disease.

But Commissioner of Health Mark Levine says his department hasn't identified any additional cases at the facility so far.

"We're still awaiting further data, but there have been no other cases reported in that facility," Levine said Tuesday. "The facility is practicing great infectious control practices, and all the appropriate quarantining of staff and patients has occurred."

Nursing homes across the country have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The majority of COVID-related deaths in Vermont occurred as a result of transmission at long-term case facilities.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Milne, Gray face off in VPR-Vermont PBS debate for lieutenant governor

Republican business owner Scott Milne and assistant attorney general Molly Gray clashed over Vermont's Global Warming Solutions Act in a debate hosted by VPR and Vermont PBS Tuesday. Progressive candidate Cris Erickson declined to join.

The act creates a state climate commission to oversee mandated carbon cuts.

Milne said he favors incentives to fight climate change—rather than the law’s penalties for missing emissions targets.

“It’s not affordable, it’s not a solution, and personally I don’t think its constitutional,” he said.

Gray supports the law — and said it will draw climate experts to the state “so we are a climate resilient and energy independent Vermont for the future.”

Lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto on the climate act this month — it now becomes law.

Gray also said the state should reassess how it funds its police.

Gray called for officer body cameras, de-escalation training — and for Vermont to rethink how it allocates money for emergency services:

“Our law enforcement are asked to be mental health professionals, they’re asked to be mediators, they’re responding to crisis. One thing we need to do is adequately define the role of police officers and then shift funding into mental health and support services,” Gray said.

Milne said he wants to consolidate all law enforcement agencies under a single agency — a move he says will increase effectiveness and accountability.

Listen to the full debate here.

- Matthew Smith

More from VPR: Four Takeaways From Lt. Governor Major Party Candidate Debate

4. Burlington Police Commission to weigh new body camera footage policy

The Burlington Police Commission is expected to discuss a new policy on when officer body camera footage would be released Tuesday night.

Their discussion comes as the mayor has called on the panel to quickly finish the policy.

The Police Commission’s work came out of recommendations from a city task force convened last year after several high-profile use of force incidents came to light.

Those same incidents have fueled protests in Burlington for the past month and led the city council to approve a buyout for an officer accused of using excessive force.

Police Commission Chair Jabulani Gamache said the group is on track to finish the body camera policy soon, but said, “We’re going to hold off until we get more direction from the mayor … Does he still want us to go through what we were wanting to do with this? So I hope to get more clarity on that.”

Gamache said he’s invited the city’s new director of police transformation to the meeting to make sure they’re on the same page.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. Gov. Scott considering legal challenge to Global Warming Solutions Act

Gov. Phil Scott says he’s contemplating a legal challenge to a climate change bill passed by lawmakers earlier this month.

The legislation establishes aggressive new emission-reduction mandates.

And it authorizes a climate council to come up with a plan for meeting those targets. 

But Scott aid the Legislature has given the council unconstitutional powers over state policy.

“The Legislature can give up its authority, and that’s all fine and well. But they can’t circumvent the executive branch, and that’s what they done,” Scott said.

Scott vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act when it came to his desk, but Democratic lawmakers overrode his veto during the last week of the legislative session.

- Peter Hirschfeld  

6. Vermont State Police pursue genealogy testing in unsolved disappearance

Vermont State Police hope a new type of DNA research will help crack the case of a young woman who disappeared 16 years ago.

Seventeen-year-old Brianna Maitland was last seen leaving her job at a Montgomery restaurant on March 19, 2004. Her car was found the next day and police suspect foul play.

Now state police have teamed up with a Texas-based company that uses genetic genealogy tracing to hunt for new leads in cold cases.

Detective Sergeant Angela Baker is the lead investigator. She said the company will use DNA recovered during the investigation to possibly find new people for police to interview.

“We haven't gotten a hit on this DNA. So we want to find a different way to see if we can figure out who the DNA belongs to. Ancestry tracing will give us, we're hoping will give us, some new leads we can follow,” Baker said.

Othram is the Houston-based company that will use a DNA database to find a possible match. The company has started a fundraising campaign to pay for the research on the Maitland case.

- John Dillon

7. Welch calls for Congress to pass new stimulus bill ASAP

Congressman Peter Welch says the national economy will suffer if Congress doesn't pass a new stimulus package by the end of the week.

That's when the U.S. House is scheduled to adjourn until after the election.

Welch says the financial stability of many states, including Vermont, could be threatened if Congress doesn't pass new stimulus soon.

Welch said the new $2.2 trillion package represents a compromise between what House leaders proposed last spring and what Senate Republican leaders offered earlier this month. The package includes more money for states, grants for businesses, and another $1,200 check for most individuals.

The Scott Administration projects serious cuts in next year's budget if Congress doesn't provide more coronavirus stimulus money to individual states.

Welch said the new $2.2 trillion package represents a compromise between what House leaders proposed last spring and what Senate Republican leaders offered earlier this month.

He said it allocates $830 million to Vermont, and its communities, to help offset revenue lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that in order to avert what will be a tough economic downturn and avoid that from becoming a depression we've got to have the federal government step and help our states - the state of Vermont and our municipalities."    

Welch said he believes the legislation will pass Congress if President Trump decides to back the bill.

- Bob Kinzel

8. Vermont expected to see rapid antigen testing soon

Vermont’s capacity to perform coronavirus antigen testing is about to get a boost.

The federal government will send the state 180,000 antigen test kits before the end of the year.

The antigen tests come in the form of a card. And all a clinician has to do is smear that card with a saliva sample from a patient to find out whether that person is carrying the coronavirus.

The tests can yield results in as little as 15 minutes.

And Vermont’s commissioner of health, Mark Levine, says, federal officials hope the tests will help nursing homes and other long-term care facilities monitor their populations for COVID-19.

“We envision that the cards may play a role in those facilities as well, and there will be further guidance coming out regarding their use,” Levine said.

Levine said the antigen tests are notoriously unreliable. And false positives from antigen testing in Manchester earlier this summer led to fear of a coronavirus outbreak that didn’t actually exist.

But Levine said frequent use of antigen tests in congregate living facilities can potentially play a useful role in monitoring for presence of the coronavirus.

- Peter Hirschfeld
 

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