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Health Officials Report 3 More COVID Deaths, Concern About Cases At Long-Term Facilities

A sign reading COVID-19 If You Enter VT You Must Isolate HealthVermont.Gov
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
A sign along Route 15 in Underhill warns travelers they'll need to quarantine if they're arriving in Vermont from out of state.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, rising food insecurity and more for Friday, Nov. 27.

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1. Health officials report three more people have died after contracting COVID-19

The Health Department confirmed 172 new cases of COVID-19 in Vermont over the past two days, and three additional deaths from the disease.

During a media briefing on Friday, Gov. Phil Scott offered his condolences to the bereaved families.

“For the rest of us, please remember this is the consequence of more virus in a community, which is exactly why we’ve taken the steps we’ve taken,” he said.

Health officials say the three people who died were all over the age of 75. And they say one of the victims was a resident of a long-term care facility.

The Elderwood nursing home in Burlington has become the latest long-term care facility in Vermont to experience a coronavirus outbreak. Health Commissioner Mark Levine says 14 residents and two staff members there have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The Health Department and I are becoming more and more concerned about the increasing number of cases that we’re seeing in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” he said.

Long-term care facilities in Rutland, Northfield, Berlin and Bradford are also dealing with coronavirus outbreaks, according to the Department of Health.

The Health Department did not update its case numbers on Thanksgiving, but reported Friday 73 new infections confirmed on Wednesday, and 99 new cases confirmed Thursday.

The state has now seen 4,005 cases since the pandemic began, and 67 people have died after contracting COVID-19.

Some 18 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, two of whom are in intensive care units.

The state's average positivity rate from the past week is 1.3%. 

- Henry Epp and Peter Hirschfeld

St. Albans state trooper tests positive, colleagues in quarantine

More than a dozen members of the Vermont State Police are in quarantine after a state trooper in St. Albans tested positive for COVID-19.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling says a trooper who attended an in-person briefing with 15 colleagues later tested positive for COVID-19.

“Those folks as a result of that potential exposure were also put into isolation, which of course impacted the operations of the St. Albans barracks, requiring that teams from other areas of the state police backfill shifts and ensure coverage,” he said.

Schirling said Friday the troopers who may have been exposed to the coronavirus are now seven days into their quarantine.

He says the troopers will be tested for COVID-19 on Friday afternoon, and will be cleared to return to duty if they get a negative test result.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Health Dept. asking Irasburg churchgoers to get tested

The Health Department is urging people who attended services at New Hope Bible Church in Irasburg last Sunday to get tested for COVID-19.

The department says at least one person who attended services on Nov. 22 was infected with the coronavirus and that contact tracers have not been able to get enough information to contact all of those who may have been exposed.

Even those who do not have symptoms are encouraged to get a test. Testing is available every day at North Country Hospital in Newport.

- Henry Epp

Survey shows most Vermonters had planned to stay home for Thanksgiving

A survey by the New York Times suggests a majority of Vermonters were planning to abide by restrictions on Thanksgiving gatherings.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says the survey found only about 20% of Vermonters planned to spend Thanksgiving with someone outside their immediate household.

“The three regions in the country with the fewest people planning to dine outside their households were Washington, D.C., Washington State and Vermont,” Levine said. “From my viewpoint, I hope we achieved even lower.”

Levine says small gatherings between members of different households are a major source of new coronavirus infections in Vermont. He added that anyone who did spend Thanksgiving with someone outside their household should quarantine for 14 days.

- Peter Hirschfeld

First round of school surveillance COVID testing complete

Public schools in Vermont have completed their first round of coronavirus surveillance testing. More than 9,000 tests administered to school staff have yielded 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says his department has been in contact with teachers and other staff who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“And then we determined based on the time we think they may have been infectious what else needs to be done in terms of contacts to that case that might need quarantine or what have you,” he said.

Education officials say the 21 positive cases came from districts across the state. And Levine says the positive results haven’t raised concerns about an outbreak in any one district.

Staff members at public schools in Vermont are being tested monthly as part of a new effort to gauge the prevalence of COVID-19 in the general population.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Gov. confident COVID restrictions would stand up to Constitutional challenge

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that blocks New York State from enforcing occupancy limits on houses of worship.

But Gov. Phil Scott says he’s confident Vermont’s restrictions on mosques, synagogues and churches would stand up to a constitutional challenge.

“It appears that this reaffirms that what we’re doing here in Vermont is the correct path,” he said. “That we haven’t done what New York has done.”

Scott says the New York orders target houses of worship with specific occupancy limits. He added that Vermont’s orders, by contrast, hold houses of worship to the same occupancy limits as businesses and other private organizations.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Vermont Food Bank CEO concerned about rising food security with increased restrictions

A surge in coronavirus cases in Vermont has hunger advocates worried it could lead to job losses and more people without enough to eat.

Vermont Food Bank CEO John Sayles says the food bank saw a spike in demand when the state’s unemployment rate shot up to 16% in April.

Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen — dropping to 3.2% by October — but Sayles says there’s been no decrease in demand at the food bank.

He’s worried about what a worsening pandemic could mean for workers if more businesses have to close.

“I'm very concerned with this new surge in coronavirus cases and the closing down of restaurants and other activities, that more people are going to be losing jobs again,” Sayles said. “And we're going to see another surge in need.”

He noted that a surge in joblessness could happen just as several pandemic food relief programs are set to lose funding by year's end.

Hear/read the full story.

- Matthew Smith

3. Schools balancing safety with emotional well-being in deciding whether to go remote after holidays

While some Vermont school districts have decided to go to remote learning after Thanksgiving, others will stick with an in-person approach. But many parents and teachers can't agree on which method is safer and better for students.

Dr. Leah Costello, a pediatrician in South Burlington, told Vermont Edition that for many students, in-person learning is critical to their well-being.

“There are many children who, schools are their place for a warm meal, a consistent warm place to be, consistent adult interactions if their parents are working numerous jobs to support their family,” Costello said. “Those are not the families who are getting together or traveling for the holidays, and those are the kids that we really need to keep in school.”

Dr. Costello says even with the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Vermont, there is still very low transmission within schools.

But Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel says there's a heightened anxiety about students and staff coming back to in-person learning after the holidays.

“The numbers are going to spike, I have no doubt about it,” she said. “I think we're in for a really rough six to eight weeks with Christmas holidays and then New Year’s Eve right after that.”

Bonesteel says her district surveyed families to inform them of quarantine guidance and social distancing guidelines before they went on break.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Emily Aiken

4. With new law reducing inmate populations, officials worry about community mental health resources

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a bill that’s supposed to reduce the number of people serving time in Vermont prisons.

Corrections officials are worried, however, that offenders won’t have access to adequate mental health services outside prison walls.

The so-called Justice Reinvestment Act goes into effect on Jan. 1. And it discourages judges from sending offenders back to prison for low-level violations of probation or parole.

But corrections officials say there’s a shortage of community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

Dale Crook is with the Department of Corrections:

“Without having the resources in place, the concern is that we’ll be leaving individuals out in the community without the appropriate resources that are in a state of chaos,” he said.

Corrections officials say lack of services will make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate into the general population, adding it’ll cost money to bolster treatment capacity before the new law takes effect.

Proposed "good behavior" rule surprises victims' families

The families of crime victims in Vermont are voicing concerns about a proposed rule change that could shorten prison sentences for violent offenders.

Lawmakers are considering a rule that would allow existing inmates to earn time off their sentences for good behavior in prison. But Commissioner of Corrections James Baker says crime victims and their families were caught off guard by the proposal.

“I’ve had conversations with victims’ families that felt like they didn’t see this coming,” Baker said.

The proposed rule change is part of a broader effort to reduce the prison population in Vermont. Lawmakers say they plan to take testimony from opponents of the rule before making a final decision.

- Peter Hirschfeld

5. Lawmakers approve replacement for Woodside juvenile facility

Vermont lawmakers have approved a new secure juvenile treatment to replace the aging Woodside facility in Essex.

WPTZ NBC 5 reports the Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee voted unanimously in support of a new facility, to be located in Wells River and operated by a new Vermont contractor.

Department for Children and Families estimates it'll pay $3.9 million a year to run the facility. That's about $2 million less than Woodside's annual costs.

The facility will house boys involved in the youth juvenile system, and can house up to six at once.

The facility is set to open in October 2021.

- Matthew Smith

6. State seeking public comment on telecommunications plan

The state wants public comment on a telecommunications plan drafted in response to the COVID pandemic.

The coronavirus forced more people to work and learn at home. Yet many found that impossible because of the wide gaps in broadband Internet service throughout Vermont.

Clay Purvis is telecommunications director at the Department of Public Service, and he says the state should build on existing programs to get people service.

“Things that can be done in the short term, like broadband subsidies, so people can afford to purchase broadband for their children or for their own use, continuing line extensions of existing networks, expanding wireless networks where possible to try to get as many people served – those are strategies the state has long been engaged in, and this continues that,” Purvis said.

The state will hold virtual hearings on the plan Dec. 3 and Dec. 8.

- John Dillon

More from Brave Little State: What's Vermont Doing To Improve Broadband Access?

7. Scott administration to propose level-funded budget

The Scott administration is facing a budget conundrum: Vermont’s budget shortfall next year could run as high as $200 million, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While President-elect Joe Biden is pledging to support a new stimulus package to help states out, Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin says uncertainty over the aid puts the governor in a difficult position.

“The new Congress and the new president won't be in office until literally the week that the governor is required to submit his budget,” Greshin said. “So he will be submitting a budget not knowing what the intentions are and what the impact will be for the new government."

Greshin says the administration will initially propose a budget that doesn't include any additional federal pandemic funds. This means virtually all state programs would need to be level-funded next year.

- Bob Kinzel

8. Connecticut insurance company suing 9 Vermont towns over records access

A Connecticut insurance company is suing nine Vermont town clerks, saying their interpretation of the state’s COVID-19 emergency order is unfairly restricting access to land records.

The Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Company, which has a branch in South Burlington, filed the lawsuit in Chittenden Superior Court.

The company says it wants the towns to increase the number of hours that town vaults are open to the public.

The inability to access land records is slowing down real estate transactions, the company argues, and they’re are asking the court for an expedited decision given, the “time sensitivity of the issues involved.”

The town clerks named in the suit are from the towns of Bolton, Georgia, Lincoln, Milton, Northfield, Plainfield, Shrewsbury, South Burlington, and Whiting.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

9. Fish & Wildlife gives thanks for turkeys

The Fish & Wildlife department says it's grateful this Thanksgiving for the restoration of Vermont’s wild turkey population.

All of today's domestic breeds of turkey descend from our native wild turkey. Wild turkeys are all over Vermont today, but that wasn’t always the case: They disappeared in the mid- to late-1800s when land was cleared for farming, destroying their habitat.

The wild turkeys we see in Vermont today originated from just 31 wild turkeys stocked in Rutland County by the Fish & Wildlife Department in 1969 and 1970. Today, Vermont’s population of turkeys is estimated at close to 50,000.

- Mark Davis and Henry Epp

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