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News Roundup: Officials Report 102 New COVID Cases, 1 More Death

A duck blind through the branches, on the ice on Lake Champlain near Milton.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
The sun sets over the ice near Milton, off the causeway to South Hero.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, Feb. 22.Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 15 minutes with The Frequency every weekday morning. How about an email newsletter? Add our daily email briefing to your morning routine.

The latest coronavirus data:

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1. Vt. Department of Health reports 102 COVID-19 cases, 1 additional death

Health officials reported 102 new COVID-19 infections statewide Monday and one more virus-related death, plus 236 cases and four deaths over the weekend. A total of 197 Vermonters have now died from the coronavirus.

Now more than 86,000 Vermonters have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 43,000 Vermonters are fully vaccinated.

Today's new cases span all of Vermont's 14 counties, with 40 of the new infections in Chittenden County.

There are currently 37 people hospitalized with the virus, and 13 of those individuals are in the ICU.

- Karen Anderson

Southwest Vermont schools go remote for week

Students in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and Southwest Tech districts have shifted to remote learning this week.

After students in those districts were off for winter break last week, school officials made the decision to go remote for the week out of an abundance of caution, according to the Bennington Banner.

The school made a similar decision in early January, keeping the entire district remote for the week after the Christmas and holiday break.

School Care is also suspended until March 1.

- Karen Anderson

UVM expands quarantine housing

The University of Vermont will increase on-campus quarantine housing after nearly 80 students tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

VTDigger says the additional quarantine housing will be in Mercy Hall, on the Trinity Campus, displacing the 62 students that live there now.

This will put the majority of UVM students who are in quarantine on the outskirts of the main campus and closer to Burlington residences.

Classes at UVM resumed Feb. 1, and since then 78 students have tested positive for the coronavirus, with just 46 of those over the last week.

University officials say more than half of last week’s new positive student cases were already in quarantine when their status was confirmed.

UVM saw 99 total cases of COVID-19 throughout the entire fall semester.

- Karen Anderson

2. State officials expect vaccine appointments for Vermonters 65 and older to open in early March

Vermonters who are 65 and older can look forward to signing up for the coronavirus vaccine early in March.

Administration officials say the new sign up window comes as the state makes steady progress through the first two age groups to get the shots – those 75 and older and those 70 and older.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says people in the 65-and-older age group can take steps now to be ready for when the shots are available.

“I would encourage this age group to go online at healthvermont.gov/myvaccine and set up an account ahead of time, so when we announce a date to register, you will have an established account, and you can simply go to the account and pick a place, date and time to get vaccinated,” Smith said.

According to the state's figures, about 15% of Vermont's adult population has received at least one of the vaccine doses.

- John Dillon

After that, Vermonters with select chronic conditions will be eligible for vaccines

The Scott administration hopes to offer COVID-19 vaccines to Vermonters between the ages of 16 and 65 with chronic health conditions by the end of March.

And the administration says it is going to rely on "the honor system" to determine who is eligible to be in this category.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Friday individuals will be asked to self-verify that they have a serious chronic health condition, and he doesn't think many Vermonters will take advantage of this system.

"You will have to self-attest and then there will be a verification process,” Smith said. “From there, we'll outline that as soon as we have the IT program all put together, which is in progress right now." 

The administration hopes to have a vaccine registration system in place for this group of Vermonters by the middle of March.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Scott calls for greater state control over COVID vaccines distributed to pharmacies

Gov. Phil Scott says the state needs greater control over COVID-19 vaccines that the federal government distributed to pharmacy chains for use in long-term care facilities.

Scott administration officials say Vermont will get a one-time, 10,000 dose boost to its vaccine supply by getting unused vaccines given to the pharmacies.

Scott said Friday that shows that states should be in full control of the vaccine supply.

“We want to have partnerships, we want to work with the pharmacies, but we'd like to know where that vaccine is going, and how much they have, and make sure that we're utilizing it to our fullest advantage,” Scott said. “So this is one area that that governors and myself, the governors across the country – [on] both sides of the aisle – are raising a red flag here, because this could be problematic.”

Scott says state control is needed so Vermont can vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

- John Dillon

4. Sen. Sanders says COVID relief bill is the only chance to raise federal minimum wage this session

Sen. Bernie Sanders says the COVID relief package currently working its way through Congress is the only chance to increase the federal minimum wage this session.

Democrats are pushing the relief package through budget reconciliation - which only requires a simple majority of senators to pass. But the mechanism sets up a process that may bar certain measures, like a minimum wage boost, from being included.

Sanders says a minimum wage increase wouldn't get through the Senate without reconciliation.

"So if we do not do it through reconciliation, where we can do it with 51 votes, including the vice president, there is no way we're going to raise the minimum wage. That's it. Pure and simple,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he expects the $1.9 trillion package can pass Congress by mid-March.

Hear/read the full conversation.

- Henry Epp

5. Senate minority leader calls for use of COVID relief funds to ensure better broadband access

Vt. Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock says the state is uniquely poised to ensure that all Vermonters have access to high-speed broadband services in the near future.

And Brock thinks the state needs a new dedicated government entity to achieve this goal.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed using $20 million in federal COVID stimulus money to help coordinate a comprehensive, statewide approach to this issue.

Brock says he strongly backs this plan.

“At the top of my list right now is something that we certainly learned from the pandemic and that is telecommunications – that's broadband, that's cellular connectivity," Brock said. "And [with] those one-time funds, we have a tremendous opportunity now to avoid creating two Vermonts, which we're beginning to do; the Vermont that's connected and the Vermont that's not."

Lawmakers are considering several plans to help subsidize broadband services in the rural parts of the state.

- Bob Kinzel

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Expanding Vt. Broadband Could Involve Elon Musk, Lawmakers And Gov. Scott

6. Attorney general's office sues Newport UPS store over mask mandate violations

Vermont’s top law enforcement officer is suing a UPS store in Newport for refusing to follow the state’s mask mandate.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington Superior Court, alleges that owner Mike Desautel didn’t require employees to wear face-coverings and had “no intention to do so in the future.”

The Newport police and attorney general’s office reached out to Desautel multiple times this month to ask him to comply with the state’s mask mandate, which has been in effect since August.

Attorney General TJ Donovan says he believes people should be given a chance to voluntarily follow the state’s public health orders.

“But at some point in time, you have to recognize that you’re going to have to take a different action, and that’s what we did today,” Donovan said.

Desautel was not available to comment. The store also lost its franchise deal with UPS last Thursday for not following the company’s mask requirement. 

- Liam Elder-Connors

AG's office offers free expungement "tele-clinic"

The Vermont attorney general’s office says a free expungement “tele-clinic” will be held next month focused on removing eligible criminal charges and convictions for clients of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, Migrant Justice and Mercy Connections.

Attorney General TJ Donovan says certain convictions and dismissed charges may be removed from one's record after a period of time has passed. He says in Vermont, many misdemeanors, 14 felony offenses and all dismissed charges can be expunged.

The clinic will take place March 5, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants must schedule an appointment by calling Vermont Legal Aid at 802-503-0005 x255 by this Friday, Feb. 26.

- Associated Press

7. State data shows Vt. school enrollment dropping again

Enrollment in Vermont's public schools has dropped again, according to new data from the Agency of Education.

For the current school year, the number of Vermont students fell to about 79,000. That's a little more than 5% fewer students in school than the year before.

Public school enrollment in Vermont has been steadily declining for years, though this is the first time in recent history that enrollment has dipped below 80,000 students. The news comes despite anecdotal evidence that some school districts saw an influx of families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

- Anna Van Dine

8. Vt. National Guard soldiers return from D.C.

Vermont Army National Guard soldiers returned home Sunday after more than a month in the nation’s capital.

More than 100 Vermont National Guard soldiers joined about 20,000 soldiers from across the country to support federal and local agencies working to ensure a peaceful inauguration.

The Vermonters were among several thousand who remained in Washington after the inauguration to help maintain security.

According to WCAX, Vermont Guard members helped protect the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Their final mission was at the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s residence.

Now that the soldiers are back, they will be completing a quarantine before going back to their daily lives.

- Associated Press and Karen Anderson

Correction 2/23/2021 4:06 p.m.: A prior version of this story referred to Mike Desautel, owner of the Newport UPS store being sued by the Attorney General's Office, as Mark Desautel.

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