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News Roundup: Vermont Sets A New Daily Record With 251 COVID-19 Cases

A plastic sandwichboard sign advertises COVID-19 testing to people driving by on Pine Street, with industrial buildings in the background.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
A sign advertises COVID-19 testing at a Vermont Department of Health-run pop-up site on Pine Street in Burlington on Friday, March 26. The state reported a record number of new cases Friday.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, March 26.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. Vermont Department of Health reports 251 new COVID-19 cases

Vermont on Friday set a record for new daily cases of COVID-19.

But Gov. Phil Scott says he has no plans to tighten restrictions on commerce or household gatherings.

“We’ll make changes as necessary, but at this point in time, we don’t see that there’s a need to change course,” Scott said.

Scott says hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 continue to trend downward.

And he says that only four of the record 251 cases of COVID-19 reported on Friday were among people age 65 and over.

102 cases were in Chittenden County alone, meaning the county has now seen more than 600 cases in just the last two weeks.

One virus-linked death was also reported, bringing Vermont's pandemic total to 224.  Currently, 26 people are hospitalized with COVID, including four people in the ICU.

More than half of people who tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks were under 30.

As of today, about 35% of Vermonters over the age of 16 have been at least partially vaccinated.

- Peter Hirschfeld  and Matthew Smith

Gov. Scott says he plans to unveil plan to reopen Vermont's economy in early April

Gov. Phil Scott says Vermonters will soon get a look at his plan to reopen the state’s economy.

Scott says the easing of COVID-19 restrictions will be based on the percentage of residents who are vaccinated against the disease.

“This will demonstrate why we believe the fourth of July will mark a new phase – a time when things will look and feel much more normal,” Scott said.

Scott said during his COVID-19 media briefing yesterday on Friday that he plans to unveil the reopening plan within the next 10 days.

Education officials say they’ll present new COVID-19 guidelines for public schools in the beginning of April.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Gov. Phil Scott to receive first vaccine dose a week from Monday

Gov. Phil Scott is about to join the ranks of Vermonters who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The 62-year-old governor became eligible to schedule an appointment on Thursday morning.

He says he’s set to receive his first shot a week from Monday.

“You know I’m looking forward to more mobility, more freedom, getting this behind us so that we can enjoy everything that we have to offer in Vermont. So yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”]

Nearly 190,000 Vermonters have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

More than 85% of residents age 70 and older have been immunized.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Vermonters 50 and older eligible for vaccines Monday

Vermonters who are 60 years old or older can now make appointments for coronavirus vaccines.

The Health Department says more than 11,200 Vermonters in that age group signed up when registrations opened Thursday.

The department says technical problems with its online registration system yesterday morning were later resolved.

Some people scheduled testing appointments, instead of vaccine appointments.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith says about 2,000 people who tried to get a vaccine appointment through the state were instead signed up for a COVID-19 test.

“We have canceled the accidental testing appointments, and the Department of Health has reached out to those that were affected to help them make the correct appointments,” Smith said Friday.

Smith said the technical issues lasted about 45 minutes.

The Health Department says it's reaching out to those who were impacted.

Anyone who registered can make sure they made the right appointment by logging back into their online accounts. They can also cancel or reschedule appointments if needed.

Sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont here.

- Peter Hirschfeld and Matthew Smith

Vermont expands vaccination eligibility to those 50 and older Monday, N.H to those 40 and older

On Monday, Vermont will expand access to coronavirus vaccines to those aged 50 or older, but in neighboring New Hampshire, next week could see vaccine registrations open to virtually all adults.

Gov. Chris Sununu says the Granite State will roll out registrations to residents in their 40s starting Monday. By the end of next week, Sununu says anyone 16 or older will be able to register for a shot.

Vermonters in their 40s won't be able to register until next month, and those 16 or older won't be eligible until April 19.

Infections and the test positivity rate are on the rise in New Hampshire. Gov. Sununu says he plans to renew the statewide mask mandate for three more weeks.

Sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont here.

- The Associated Press

3. Vt. Agency of Education to announce new guidance for schools in early April

The Agency of Education is about to relax COVID-19 distancing requirements in Vermont schools.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control said schools can shrink social distancing to three feet, so long as students are wearing masks.

Secretary of Education Dan French says his agency is revising Vermont’s guidelines accordingly.

“We are now in the process of reviewing the CDC recommendations, and that studies that they cited behind it,” French said Friday. “This review is being conducted by Dr. Levine and the Health Department in conjunction with infectious disease experts at UVM.”

French says his agency plans to unveil the new guidance for K-12 schools in early April.

He says the new requirements will promote in-person learning, by allowing districts to bring more students into school buildings.

Agency of Education plans to offer summer programs to all students who want to participate

French says his agency will ensure that summer programs are available to all students who want to participate.

French says students across Vermont are reporting an increase in depression and anxiety as a result of isolation due to remote learning.

“In conjunction with the Governor’s office, we are working with a variety of stakeholder programs and service providers to design a statewide summer initiative that expands capacity to these programs, and extends their availability for all families who wish to participate,” French said Friday.

Vermont is slated to receive an increase in federal funding to pay for afterschool and summer programs.

Secretary of Education encourages Vt. schools to spend COVID-19 relief on infrustructure upgrades

Secretary of Education Dan French wants Vermont school districts to spend their coronavirus relief money on infrastructure projects.

French says the $440 million headed to local districts over the next few years could help schools address deteriorating buildings.

“Improving school facilities is an allowable use of these funds, particularly when these improvements are related to addressing safety and health concerns,” French said. “We think these one-time federal dollars present an important opportunity to address the condition of our schools.”

A recent survey of school districts across Vermont revealed a backlog of more than half-a-billion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs.

Individual districts will have final say over how to appropriate the majority of their coronavirus relief funds.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. Vt. Attorney General defends refiled murder charges in Fortier case

Attorney General TJ Donovan has refiled first-degree murder charges against 40-year-old Louis Fortier.

Fortier allegedly fatally stabbed a man in Burlington in 2017.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George dismissed charges against Fortier and two other high-profile cases after she said there was “substantial” evidence the accused were legally insane when the crimes were committed.

Now the AG says he wants a jury to decide if Fortier should be held liable for the crime.

Donovan says the facts of the case haven’t changed.

“What’s changed, I think, is my view that insanity is a legal defense. It is not a medical diagnosis,” Donovan said. “And the people who decide, who make the finding about whether or not somebody’s insane or not, is the jury.”

Fortier has been in state custody at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin since 2017.

“I think that this was such an extraordinary circumstance, given the severity of the crimes, the governor's request to review it, and I came to a different conclusion. And it's not unusual for lawyers to disagree,” Donovan said.

Fortier’s attorney calls Donovan’s decision to refile charges “retrograde” with regard to how the courts should treat people with severe mental illness.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Matthew Smith

5. Vermont House approves budget plan that includes $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds

The Vermont House has given its approval to a budget plan that includes over $1 billion in one-time federal stimulus money.

The bill includes sizeable investments to expand broadband, improve water and sewer facilities, and upgrade the state's information technology services.

It also provides additional funds for higher education, workforce training, and affordable housing.

House Appropriations chair Mary Hooper says the federal money gives the state a unique opportunity to make a number of critical one-time expenditures.

“The House Appropriations committee has repeatedly asked itself, 'How can we support Vermonters during the pandemic and how can we help Vermont return stronger, more vital and well-positioned in its recovery?’" Hooper said.

The bill also allocates $150 million to reduce some unfunded liabilities in the state employees' and state teachers' pension funds.

- Bob Kinzel

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