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Gov. Scott Allows Gathering With One Other Household For Holidays

A blue surgical mask on a fir tree with a hill in the background
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
A tree wears a mask at Purinton Family Tree Farm in Hinesburg.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Tuesday, Dec. 22.

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1. Gov. loosens gathering restrictions for holidays

Vermont reported 63 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday, and one additional death.

That brings the state's pandemic death toll to 112.

Chittenden County had most of the new cases, with 29. Some 36 people are now hospitalized with COVID, including nine in the ICU.

- Matthew Smith

Citing lower case growth rate, state officials loosen gathering restrictions

State officials say Vermont has made great headway in slowing the growth rate of the coronavirus, especially compared to other areas of the country.

Finance Commissioner Michael Pieciak leads the state's pandemic modeling work. He says the Northeast as a whole has seen a 4% decrease in cases of COVID-19.

“Additional good news: our Vermont forecast is also trending better,” Pieciak said. “While cases are expected to rise over the next four weeks, there has been a significant reduction in the rate of that increase. And I am still optimistic that Vermonters will be able to beat this improved forecast.”

With Vermont making progress in slowing the coronavirus, Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday a temporary change in his restrictions on social gatherings.

Scott says that over the Christmas and New Year's holiday, people who live in the same house can gather with others from one, trusted household.

“We thought it was time,” Scott said. “You know, Vermonters have paid dearly to be in the position we're in today. And we thought this was a step forward, back to where we were pre-Halloween in some respects, and thought that we could start mitigating our way back out of this.”

Scott says those families and friends who do get together over the holidays should follow all safety precautions such as wearing masks and staying distant. He says if you meet with someone from out of state, or travel out of state, you still must follow the state's quarantine rules.

Pieciak says people still need to be on their guard. He notes that Vermont has seen many more visitors from out of state, especially at southern Vermont ski resorts that saw a banner snowfall last week.

- John Dillon

Youth, high school sports can start again Dec. 26

Gov. Phil Scott has partially lifted the ban on participation in youth and high school sports this winter.

Because the number of daily COVID-19 cases in Vermont has stabilized over the past week, the governor says he will allow these sports to begin practicing this weekend under strict conditions.

"Beginning Dec. 26, school-based and youth recreational sports teams may begin practices with individual skills strength and conditioning drills,” Scott said. “This means no contact, physically distanced and wearing a mask at all times."

At the same time, Scott says the ban on all adult league winter sports will remain until further notice.

- John Dillon

Second round of vaccinations not expected until at least February

The first phase of COVID-19 vaccines have already started going out to frontline workers in Vermont, and the Department of Health expects 34,000 doses to be administered to health care workers and nursing home residents by the end of December.

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan told Vermont Edition she doesn't expect the next phase of vaccinations to start until at least February. And those who are not in a priority group will get their vaccines later.

“We're thinking that hopefully by summer, we are done with the mass vaccination efforts,” Dolan said. “Hopefully spring will be that broader public that does not fit into these priority groups.”

Dolan says the vaccination timeline depends on how much of the vaccine the state receives and when.

- Emily Aiken

Vt. National Guard helps state distribute vaccine

The Vermont National Guard has been helping the state prepare and react to the pandemic, and is now helping distribute the vaccine.

So far the Guard has held pop-up COVID-19 testing sites, helped with contact tracing, and prepared over 100,000 test kits.

Adjutant General Greg Knight is the head of the Vermont National Guard, and told Vermont Edition they're now planning to help the state deliver the vaccine.

“Right now the focus is going to be on receiving it, organizing it, storing it and then preparing for distribution,” Knight said.

Knight says there are about 30 Guard members who are working on the front lines of COVID-19 that would get the vaccine first.

- Emily Aiken

White River Junction VA begins vaccinations

The White River Junction VA Healthcare System began inoculations against the coronavirus on Monday with the just-approved Moderna vaccine.

Three employees were given the shot Monday morning, after it was authorized for emergency use on Friday.

The facility is one of more than 100 VA medical centers nationwide getting the first supply of the vaccine. The Valley News reports the VA plans to administer the vaccine to 20M0 employees by Wednesday, and will soon offer it to veterans.

- Matthew Smith

Food box program extended

A food distribution program aimed at helping farmers and people in need during the coronavirus pandemic has been extended through February.

The Vermont Foodbank says it was able to extend the Farmers to Families Food Box program thanks to generous community support.

When the program started, the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the contract to the Enosburg Falls-based Abbey Group. But the last two rounds went to out-of-state companies.

The Abbey Group will return in the coming months to supply the food from farmers within the region.

- Associated Press

More from VPR: As 'Food Box' Program Is Renewed, Questions Remain If It's Best Way To Feed Hungry

2. Stamford Select Board holds in-person meetings without masks, distance

The town of Stamford is doubling down on its defiance of Gov. Scott’s COVID-19 health guidelines.

Just a few weeks after Stamford hosted a public Christmas celebration — which caught the attention of the Vermont State Police — the board held a meeting without requiring masks or social distancing.

Laura Sibilia represents Stamford in the Statehouse and says even though the meetings are held virtually, the board is creating an unsafe environment that’s cutting out those who want to follow safety guidelines.

“The part that is concerning to me is that in a public health crisis, where we have public meetings with unmasked officials, speaking over residents who are trying to participate virtually,” Sibilia said.

Stamford’s emergency management director is also asking the board to require masks at its meetings.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

3. UVMMC: Patient info not compromised in cyberattack

The state’s largest hospital says they’re confident that patient information was not compromised when a cyberattack knocked out many systems in late October.

The hack forced UVMMC to operate for weeks without their electronic medical records system, phones, email and other critical systems. Some seriously ill patients faced delays in their care.

Senior Vice President of Network Information Technology Doug Gentile says UVMMC took Epic, its electronic medical records system, offline once they discovered the hack.

“The good news is Epic was not impacted by the malware, so all of the patient data, none of that was touched,” Gentile said. “But we obviously didn’t want the malware to spread, so we took it offline so there was no possibility of that.”

The hospital also confirmed Tuesday for the first time that the attack was ransomware. Gentile says the hospital got a message from the hackers but never contacted them.

The FBI is still investigating the incident.

- Liam Elder-Connors

4. Ski area COVID-19 safety restrictions likely to have economic "ripple effect"

Travel restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 could have an impact on the ski industry's bottom line this season.

Molly Mahar, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, says it’s unclear what the economic impact will be, but she expects the industry to take a hit.

"That is going to have a ripple effect throughout the economy for sure, in terms of tax receipts, and some of these other businesses that rely on skier traffic,” Mahar said.

In a typical year, 4 million visitors would come to Vermont to ski, bringing close to a billion dollars in direct spending, according to the Ski Areas Association.

Read/hear the full story.

- Henry Epp

5. Dec. 31 deadline to spend federal relief funds lifted

Until recently, Vermont faced a Dec. 31 deadline for spending more than a billion dollars in federal coronavirus aid.

But Congress is poised to give states more time to allocate those funds, and the deadline extension has lawmakers rethinking what they want to do with the money.

Vermont has about $20 million left in unallocated coronavirus relief money. And on Monday morning, the Scott administration asked lawmakers to put those funds toward another round of financial grants for struggling businesses.

But elected officials are no longer under the gun to get that federal money out the door by Dec. 31.

And Montpelier Rep. Mary Hooper says lawmakers shouldn’t make any major spending decisions until the full Legislature reconvenes next month.

“We need to take a deep breath, step back, and let our legislative process engage,” Hooper said.

Other lawmakers aren’t so sure. And they say some businesses may face permanent closure if elected officials don’t distribute the coronavirus relief funds more quickly.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Welch hopeful new relief bill will help the businesses "hanging on"

Congressman Peter Welch says he hopes a new $900 billion COVID relief bill will help many businesses survive until the pandemic subsides.

Speaking Tuesday at Gov. Phil Scott's news briefing, the congressman said the bill revives the paycheck protection program, with new provisions aimed specifically to help restaurants that keep people employed.

“So this about hanging on,” Welch said. “And it's like we're on one side of the bridge, we can see the other side, the vaccine is there, but as we make that journey, we've got to make sure that those businesses like our restaurants and others that have been hanging on by their fingernails can make it.”

Welch says Vermont's theaters and nonprofit music and arts organizations will get a big boost under the bill. The measure set aside $15 billion to help the performing arts around the country.

- John Dillon

6. Vermont House Progressive caucus to prioritize people of color, working class

Burlington Rep. Selene Colburn will serve as chair of the Progressive caucus in the Vermont House of Representatives next year.

Colburn says Progressives will focus on the plight of vulnerable Vermonters. She replaces outgoing Progressive caucus leader Robin Chestnut-Tangerman, who lost his reelection bid in November.

And Colburn says her caucus’ agenda will prioritize the needs of people of color and working-class residents in the state.

Progressives hold seven seats in the 150-member House of Representatives. Incoming first-year lawmaker Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who represents Burlington, will serve as assistant chair of the House Progressive caucus.

- Peter Hirschfeld

7. Dartmouth receives letter with Title IX complaints after cutting women's sport programs

Some Dartmouth College student-athletes are considering legal action over pandemic-induced cuts to the school's sports programs.

New Hampshire Public Radio reports Dartmouth earlier this year cut five sports to reduce athletic costs, amid larger COVID-19 expenses to the college.

Now an attorney has issued a letter to the college from members of the women's swimming and diving and golf teams, calling the cuts a violation of Title Nine, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination.

They're calling for the women's programs to be reinstated. A Dartmouth spokesperson says the college is reviewing the letter.

- Matthew Smith

8. Franklin County infant formula manufacturer to expand operations

An international infant formula maker plans to expand its operation in Georgia, Vermont.

The St. Albans Messenger reports that Perrigo Nutritionals, which employs hundreds at its Franklin County plant, will build a new facility not far from its current operation.

It’s unclear how many new jobs the expansion will add. The paper says at one point, company representatives told the Georgia planning commission it wouldn’t have much of an impact on the number of workers Perrigo has there.

The paper says the company is one of the largest employers in the county.

- Steve Zind

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