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State Officials Report 86 New COVID Cases, 2 More Deaths

A green lit sign with white letters reads Keep Our Schools Open. Stay home and stay safe.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
Winooski schools are one of several districts across the state where in-person learning has been disrupted this year due to the pandemic. Last week, they offered this message to passersby.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Dec. 18.

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1. State officials report 86 new COVID cases, two deaths

State health officials reported 86 new COVID-19 cases Friday, with 36 in Chittenden County and 10 in Windham Country. and two new coronavirus-related deaths.

The pandemic has claimed 107 lives in Vermont since March. Gov. Phil Scott has ordered flags in Vermont to be flown at half-mast on Saturday in honor of those who have died.

“These are people,” Scott said. “Mothers, fathers, grandparents, someone’s best friend or a well-known community member. Their life had value, and however long it might have been, it was ended by this virus.”

More than a third of COVID-related deaths in Vermont have come in the past month. As of Friday, 27 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, 10 of them in the ICU.

- Matthew Smith and Peter Hirschfeld

Health Department tracking outbreaks at 11 long-term care facilities

The Department of Health is now tracking coronavirus outbreaks at 11 long-term care facilities in Vermont.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine says transmission rates appear to have slowed at some nursing homes.

“Many have more favorable news to offer now, in terms of, things have settled down. But obviously this is a particularly distressing part of the pandemic for Vermont as well as everyone else.”

Residents of long-term care facilities account for the lion’s share of the 107 COVID-related deaths in Vermont. Staff and residents of long-term care facilities are scheduled to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines next week.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Lawmakers urge state officials to formally prioritize BIPOC Vermonters for vaccination

A coalition of Vermont lawmakers is urging the state’s health commissioner and governor to formalize priority for Black, Indigenous and people of color in the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.

While the first inoculations were given this week to some frontline health care workers, it will likely be months before the general population is vaccinated.

In a letter Tuesday, the co-chairs of the Social Equity Caucus called for BIPOC Vermonters to be designated a special priority group. That means they would be vaccinated after frontline health care workers and vulnerable older adults.

Vermont Senator-elect Kesha Ram and Rep. Kevin Christie cited Health Department data released in early December, which shows that Black Vermonters are contracting COVID-19 at more than three times the rate of white Vermonters.

The Health Department has acknowledged that structural racism affects where people of color work and live and health outcomes.

The letter says the pandemic provides an opportunity to "disavow this history of discrimination.”

- Abagael Giles

State officials finalizing vaccination “1B” group

Public health officials in Vermont will soon decide who’s next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine says frontline health care workers, and staff and residents of long-term care facilities, will receive vaccines first, and a state task force is still determining which populations will follow.

“But it will almost certainly involve some combination of people over 65, and people with chronic or immune-compromising conditions,” Levine said.

He added that the taskforce was meeting Friday to finalize the so-called “Phase 1B” priority list.

Hospital workers began receiving vaccines this week. Staff and residents of long-term care facilities are scheduled to receive vaccines starting next week.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Fewer vaccine doses than expected to ship to Vermont

Vermont won’t be receiving as many doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine next week as the federal government had previously indicated.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says he learned of the development shortly before the governor’s COVID-19 briefing on Friday.

“As we were walking in, I learned that as many as 975 doses out of the expected 5,850 doses would not be coming when we expected,” he said.

Levine says Vermont may eventually receive as many doses as initially expected, but that they may not arrive as quickly as public health officials had hoped.

He added that the reduced number of vaccines could delay immunization for some hospital workers.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Burlington mayor quarantining

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is quarantining after his daughter was exposed to COVID-19 in school.

There have been 20 cases of COVID-19 associated with Burlington schools since Dec. 10. The district announced Friday it was canceling in-person classes next week due to the rising cases. Students will have remote classes on Monday and Tuesday next week before their holiday break starts on Wednesday.

Weinberger says he found out about his daughter’s potential exposure this week.

“We got a call from the school district saying that my daughter was recommended to quarantine, based on having come into close contact with someone who had tested positive,” he said.

Weinberger says he plans to get a coronavirus test in a few days.

- Liam Elder-Connors

State constitution says 16 senators must meet in person at start of session

Leaders of the Vermont Senate say that at least 16 of its 30 members need to meet in person at the beginning of the legislative session next month.

That decision is the opposite of what the House will do in January. Because of health concerns, the 150-member House will convene remotely through February.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer advises the Senate on parliamentary procedure. He told the Senate Rules Committee Thursday that the state constitution requires a quorum to meet in person.

“What I'm about to tell you is not meant to be critical of what other chambers in our state may do or other places,” Bloomer said. “I believe when you start off, the constitution requires you all to meet on what this year is Jan. 6th. And it requires you to meet, and there is nothing at all that allows you to meet remote in any manner.”

Senate leaders say they can distance themselves safely around the Statehouse for the brief opening session. They say they will then establish rules that will allow them to meet and vote remotely.

- John Dillon

Health commissioner: Don't gather with other households for Christmas, but if you do, quarantine

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine is asking Vermonters to avoid Christmas gatherings with anyone outside their immediate household.

Levine says daily COVID case counts in Vermont are still too high to lift the governor’s ban on gatherings between members of different households.

“I know how hard it is to think of spending another holiday apart,” he said. “The guidance, though, that is still in place calls for us to avoid social gatherings. And the CDC has said that the safest way to celebrate is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.”

Levine says people who disregard the guidance should wear masks and practice social distancing when attending social gatherings.

He added that people who gather with members of other households will need to quarantine afterward.

- Peter Hirschfeld

School, recreational sports prohibited for another week

Gov. Phil Scott’s prohibition on school and recreational sports leagues will continue for at least another week.

Scott says daily coronavirus case counts in Vermont have plateaued in recent weeks. But during a media briefing on Friday, he said sporting events still pose too much of a threat to public health.

“Still my hope that in the coming days and weeks we’ll see these high numbers drop, so we can scale back on some of our restrictions on both sports and household gatherings,” he said.

The University of Vermont has cleared its men’s and women’s sports teams to resume competition this weekend.

Scott says colleges and universities are not subject to his ban on sporting events.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Sen. Bernie Sanders lauds COVID relief bill with $600 payments

If Congress passes a new COVID relief bill in the coming days, it's estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars will be pumped into the state economy in a relatively short period of time.

That's because Sen. Bernie Sanders has been able to include a second round of stimulus checks for individuals in the package.

Under this plan, most Vermonters, including children, will receive a check for $600.

Sanders says the impact on the state economy could be considerable.

“We estimate that this proposal, as it now stands, would bring over $300 million into the state of Vermont to the people who need it most, and they're going to go out and spend it, and that helps create jobs,” he said.

While House and Senate leaders are still negotiating over several parts of the bill, the legislation is expected to pass in the next few days.

Sanders optimistic about Biden administration’s COVID response

Sanders says he's optimistic that President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration will quickly put together a comprehensive national strategy to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sanders says the current "state-by-state" approach has not been effective in reducing the spread of the virus, and he faults President Trump for not developing a national approach to this issue.

"Look, it's no secret that under Trump, the national policy has been an absolute, absolute, disaster and a disgrace,” he said. “Biden is putting together some really really sharp people. I think you're going to finally see some national policy regarding how we best attack this pandemic.”

Sanders also says it's critical for the federal government to provide additional financial resources to help states distribute COVID vaccines as quickly as possible.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Rutland's Paramount Theatre executive director retires

Bruce Bouchard, the long time director of Rutland’s Paramount Theatre, retired Friday.

The 72-year-old took the helm of the Paramount in 2008, when the theater was struggling with debt and an uncertain future.

Mark Foley Jr., a longtime theater board member, says Bouchard’s leadership righted the facility’s finances, increased and broadened its outreach and created an economic engine for the region.

“It was a paradigm shift – he showed us what the Paramount could accomplish, and the rest is really 12 years of history,” Foley said.

Eric Mallette, who worked under Bouchard for years, succeeds him as executive director.

Read/hear the full story.

- Nina Keck

4. Federal relief funds help repair or replace fuel tanks for 198 Vermont homes

State officials have used federal coronavirus relief funds to help around 200 people fix or replace above-ground fuel tanks so they could get home heating fuel delivered this winter.

The Times Argus reports that a 2017 Vermont law requires above-ground tanks to be inspected every three years.

Tanks that fail can’t be filled.

A state aid program ran out of funds, and Vermont Legal Aid pointed out that COVID Relief Funds could be used to help.

In all, 198 awards were written using coronavirus money.

- Associated Press

5. After complaints, Northeast Kingdom Human Services put on "provisional" status

Dozens of complaints from the community have put Northeast Kingdom Human Services on a "provisional" status as state mental health leaders push the organization to improve.

The Caledonian Record reports 54 complaints against NKHS were filed with the state's Department of Mental Health and the Department of Aging and Independent Living.

Commissioner Sarah Squirrell says the multiple concerns raised by staff and the community about the mental health division at NKHS led to a review which found "numerous areas where NKHS had not met the minimum standards."

NKHS is allowed to continue operating but must submit a plan to correct the shortcomings and implement changes over the next six months.

- Matthew Smith

6. County prosecutor declines nonviolent cases from Northfield police chief, citing consent issues

A county prosecutor in Vermont will decline cases involving the Northfield police chief, citing two drug cases where he searched people without consent.

The Times Argus reports state's attorney Rory Thibault sent a letter to the Northfield Select Board saying his office would decline nonviolent cases from Police Chief John Helfant.

The decision stems from two separate cases where body-camera footage shows people were searched without consent, contrary to the chiefs's sworn affidavits he had consent for both searches.

The state's attorney's office dismissed both cases when they learned of the lack of consent.

In a letter to the paper, Chief Helfant says an investigation into his conduct found no criminal wrongdoing and says the discrepancy was a "failure of the body cam technology and nothing more."

- Associated Press

7. Rutland community organization offers Zoom access, help for holidays

Many of us will be connecting with loved ones this holiday — virtually.

But Olivia Tipton, a spokesperson for Rutland’s Community Care Network, says not everyone has the technology to do that, or the know-how.

So from 3 to 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, they’re organizing a “Zoom for the Holidays” event at Rutland’s Evergreen Center to help.

“I just really hope that through this event, we can just create an opportunity for people to find connection and not feel isolated, not feel alone,” Tipton said.

Tipton added they’ll have four private rooms available and volunteers on hand to help. Transportation is also available, but you need to call ahead to register: 802-747-3588.

- Nina Keck

8. Despite out-of-state quarantine restrictions, Okemo Mountain Resort is well-booked for Christmas week

Christmas week would normally be one of the busiest travel weeks of the year for Vermont ski areas. But this year, out-of-state skiers must quarantine for at least a week, if not two, before they hit the slopes.

The statewide ban on multi-household gatherings applies to visitors as well as locals.

Bonnie MacPherson is the communications manager at Okemo Mountain Resort. She says numbers for Christmas week are looking strong and people booked early.

“I’ve talked with some lodging businesses in the Okemo valley, and the consensus that I heard was that, you know, if they had twice as much on-mountain inventory to sell during the holiday week, they would already have it booked,” MacPherson said.

At Okemo – owned by Vail Resorts – passholders must book a reservation and promise they’ve complied with travel guidelines each time they want to ski.

Following winter storm Gail, the mountain is reporting more than 40 inches of new snow, the most of any major ski area in the state.

- Abagael Giles

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