Vermont Health Officials Report 3 More People Died, Bringing COVID Death Toll To 89
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the death of New Hampshire's House Speaker and more for Thursday, Dec. 10.
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The latest coronavirus data:
1. State officials report three more people have died
Vermont health officials recorded 119 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, and three new virus-related deaths.
A total of 89 people have now died after contracting the coronavirus.
The new cases were in every state county but clustered in Chittenden County, which saw 54 new infections, and Bennington County, with 13 new cases.
There are currently 22 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including two in the ICU. Vermont has performed 601,629 COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began.
- Matthew Smith
New Hampshire House Speaker dies
Representative Dick Hinch, the speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, has died from COVID-19.
New Hampshire Public Radio says the state’s attorney general announced the cause of death Thursday afternoon. Hinch, who represented Merrimack, died Wednesday night.
Hinch was sworn in as Speaker just one week ago. He was 71.
- Steve Zind
Women's prison on lockdown
Vermont's only women's prison has been locked down after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Seven Days reports a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility employee tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, fully locking down the facility.
Corrections officials say inmates at the South Burlington facility have not been tested for the virus since late November, but all inmates and staff would be tested Thursday.
Prison officials say contact tracing is underway to determine if inmates were exposed.
- Matthew Smith
St. Albans Health and Rehab reports 22 new infections in past week
The COVID-19 outbreak at St. Albans Health and Rehab has infected 22 people in the last week, bringing the total number of cases among staff and residents at the facility to 36.
The County Courier reports the increase is the second highest of the eight long-term care facilities in the state.
Elderwood in Burlington is the only facility facing a faster spread. It's seen more than 90 cases since the pandemic began.
Rutland Health and Rehab reported another nine cases this week, for a total of 63, and Berlin Health and Rehab reports 16 new cases this week, for a total of 29.
- Matthew Smith
Windham County schools will go remote after holidays
A Windham County school district is going remote after the holiday break.
The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union says they'll switch to remote learning after Christmas vacation and through the first week of January.
School officials say a surge in COVID cases and the possibility of multi-family gatherings over break led to decision to go remote after the holiday.
- Matthew Smith
New York's North Country to get vaccine soon
New York's North Country will get 3,700 doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week.
North Country Public Radio reports New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state will get 170,000 doses of the vaccine in its initial batch, which will go first to nursing home residents and staff.
The state's roughly 700,000 hospital workers will be next in line, as additional shipments go out in the following weeks.
- Matthew Smith
Burlington to lend employees for contact tracing
Vermont’s largest city will be lending some of its employees to the state health department to boost contact tracing efforts.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger announced Wednesday that 15 city employees start their new, part-time role next week.
The state has been expanding its contact tracing team in recent weeks as coronavirus cases surge, and Weinberger says the city reached out to the Health Department to offer assistance.
“If we can help them with the capacity issues, ensure that the virus suppression effort continues to succeed, that’s what’s going to allow us to keep the schools open, that’s what’s going to continue to allow us to have some level of economic activity possible through the remaining months of this pandemic,” Weinberger said. “That’s why I believe it’s the right priority.”
The Burlington employees will serve as contact tracers three days a week for at least the next six weeks.
- Liam Elder-Connors
2. DCF to issue one-time payments for 3SquaresVT, Reach Up recipients
Some Vermont families will get an extra 3SquaresVT payment this month.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families announced Wednesday more than 22,000 households participating in the program will get an extra check using COVID relief funds.
The one-time payment of $286 dollars will go to eligible households by the end of the month.
Participants in DCF’s Reach Up program will also receive an extra payment this month to help cover pandemic-related expenses.
The agency announced Thursday that more than 3,000 households should expect a one-time payment of $432 dollars in December.
The extra funds are meant to help cover COVID expenses such as PPE and new costs associated with working and schooling at home.
DCF's Reach Up program provides financial and employment help to low-income families. The extra payments come just weeks before many federal pandemic assistance programs are slated to end.
- Matthew Smith and Brittany Patterson
3. Mental Health Commissioner asks for mental health hazard pay program
On Wednesday, Commissioner of Mental Health Sarah Squirrell asked lawmakers for $3.2 million for the hazard pay program. She says frontline mental health workers are under extraordinary stress as a result of COVID-19.
And she says mental health providers could see workforce shortages if the state doesn’t increase compensation soon.
“And if these direct care services do collapse, or the designated agencies and specialized service agencies are unable to retain these direct care staff, it will put pressure on our overall health care system at a time when our health care system simply can’t sustain that,” Squirrell said.
Lawmakers though have at least temporarily rejected Squirrell’s request. And they say there may be other more pressing needs in state government.
Squirrell warned lawmakers that the mental health system could begin to deteriorate rapidly if lawmakers don’t approve the hazard pay grants before the end of December.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. Welch votes against defense authorization bill
The U.S. House passed a defense authorization bill with overwhelming bipartisan support on Tuesday, rebuking President Trump, who has threatened to veto the legislation.
Trump opposes a provision in the bill that would change the names of several military bases named after Confederate leaders. He also wants to see the repeal of Section 230, which gives liability protection to social media platforms. The bill that passed the House does not repeal Section 230.
Despite the overwhelming support for the National Defense Authorization Act, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch voted against it. Welch told Vermont Edition he voted against it because of the overall $740 billion dollar price tag attached to it, which he added is more than the Pentagon wanted.
“I mean, the amount we're spending on defense has been exploding,” Welch said. “And we've been giving defense more than they've even asked for.”
Welch says he does support national security and a broad defense budget, but would like to see spending better controlled.
“My view is that that has a lot less to do with defense than it does with individual members basically trying to get money for their programs or individual members trying to politicize the defense budget by making it sound as though the more you spend the stronger we are,” he said. “And that's not true!”
Welch was one of fewer than 40 lawmakers who voted against the National Defense Authorization Act.
- Jane Lindholm
5. Curtis Tuff, of Curtis' BBQ, dies
Curtis Tuff, who ran Curtis' Barbecue in Putney for more than 50 years, has died.
Former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Putney native, says Tuff, who was Black, was the perfect Vermont ambassador, welcoming tourists to the southern part of the state from behind his barbecue pit near the Interstate 91 exit.
“We need more Curtises in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “You know, people who come here, who understand the state, who are positive and giving and thoughtful, and who don’t look like the rest of us.”
Tuff was born in Georgia, and he came here to pick apples in the early 1960s. He was 83.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
6. Proposed Addison County school district merger details revealed
Addison County residents now have details of what could be in store for a major school consolidation affecting roughly half of the county.
The Addison Independent reports a special meeting of the Mount Abraham Unified School District on Monday saw Superintendent Patrick Reen recommend no immediate school closures and a phased consolidation with the Addison Northwest School District.
Phase one would reconfigure elementary schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro. A second phase would merge schools serving Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham.
Each district would have to get approval from voters for any merger. If approved, Reen's proposal would be phased in through 2024.
- Matthew Smith
7. Five Connecticut River power dams undergoing re-licensing
Advocates for the Connecticut River say a re-licensing process for five power dams offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the river's water quality and recreation resources.
The dams are in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Their owners applied for federal licenses that last for 30 to 50 years.
Kathy Urffer is with the Connecticut River Conservancy. She says the conditions included in the re-licensing application from Great River Hydro for its three dams in Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon are a good step forward.
“What this means for the river is that we expect improvements in aquatic habitat, for rare and endangered species in the river,” Urffer said. “There will be higher flows in the river most of the time.”
However, conservancy officials were more critical of plans by a Quebec-based company that owns two hydro facilities in Massachusetts. They say the proposal does not address erosion and other problems caused by the projects.
- John Dillon
8. Springfield Hospital emerges from bankruptcy
Springfield Hospital has successfully emerged from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Springfield Hospital declared bankruptcy a year and a half ago after losing about $14 million over the previous two years.
The announcement Thursday that the U.S. bankruptcy court approved the hospital’s plan means Springfield Hospital, and the medical system that runs a series of dental and health clinics in the area, will now operate as independent organizations.
As part of the successful reorganization, the state of Vermont kicked in about $10 million, in both writing off unpaid taxes as well as direct loans and grants.
The hospital was able to convince the judge it could remain open in spite of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which hurt revenue and slowed the process.
Early on in the bankruptcy case, Springfield Hospital said it would likely need to merge with a larger hospital, but those plans were scrapped due to the pandemic.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
9. FCC approves VPR, Vermont PBS Merger
The Federal Communications Commission has cleared the way for a merger between Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS.
The Federal Communications Commission has granted permission for a license transfer, and the Internal Revenue Service has granted tax-exempt status, the organizations announced this week.
The organizations plan to operate independently until officially merging in July.
- Mark Davis
10. Ben & Jerry's names new flavor after Colin Kaepernick
Ben & Jerry's newest flavor will be a tribute to activist and quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his work on racial justice issues.
The Vermont-based ice cream company says the flavor will be called "Change the Whirled," and some of the proceeds will go to Kaepernick's non-profit, Know Your Rights Camp. The group aims to "advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities," according to its website.
Jay Curley is Ben & Jerry's head of marketing. He says unlike some past flavors that have honored social justice movements, this ice cream will be part of the company's offerings for the foreseeable future.
"We see this as hopefully a really long-term partnership that we hope can help grow and support the racial justice movement,” Curley said.
He added: "Ice cream is inherently joyful, and the work that Colin is doing to support Black and brown communities is very joyful."
The flavor will be non-dairy, and will include caramel, chocolate and graham crackers. It will hit store shelves in 2021.
- Henry Epp
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