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News Roundup: Officials Report 201 COVID Cases, 1 Additional Death

A woman reaches up for a tube attached to a sap tank on the back of a truck
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Emily Grube, 70, empties a sap tank along Allen Hill Road in Pomfret on Wednesday, March 31. Grube, who farms with Moore Family Partnership, says the sugaring season has been "interesting," and not quite as lucrative this year.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, delayed pension reform and more for Friday, April 2.

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1. State officials report 201 new COVID cases, 1 more death

Vermont health officials reported 201 new COVID-19 infections Friday. Another person has also died, bringing the state's total virus-related deaths to 228.

Chittenden County continues to have the lion's share of new cases, with 72.

There are 32 people hospitalized due to the virus, including four in the ICU.

Just under 39% of Vermonters over the age of 16 have gotten at least one vaccine dose so far.

- Matthew Smith

Vermont 14-day COVID case rate average close to all-time high

Vermont now has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the country.

At the governor’s press conference Friday, Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said the state had the ninth highest average number of cases in the U.S. over the last week.

“The Vermont 14-day case rate average is close to an all-time high,” Pieciak said. “And the seven day case rate average is in fact at an all-time high for the pandemic.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says virus variants are circulating through the state.

“Now a big part of why the virus is spreading more easily is certainly due to the variants, which have been detected in residents of five Vermont counties now,” Levine said. “B.1.1.7. in Chittenden, Franklin, Rutland, Caledonia and Windham, and B.1.429 in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle.”

The variants are likely in other counties, too, he said.

Pieciak says that while the growth is concerning, the state’s successful vaccination program means the most at-risk Vermonters are protected. Vermont’s hospitalization and death rate is among the lowest in New England.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vt. schools will be able to seat students 3 feet apart

The Agency of Education will adopt new federal guidelines that allow students to be closer together when they are inside schools.

Education Secretary Dan French says the CDC recently announced that if students are 3 feet apart, it’s enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have heard consistently from schools that the current 6-foot distancing requirement has been a barrier to their goal of implementing more in-person instruction,” French said. “By making this change in our guidance, I expect we will see more schools move to full in-person instruction in the coming weeks.”

French says the new education guidelines will be published next week.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

State will soon allow adult day centers to open

As the vaccination rate for those 60 and older increases, the state says it will soon issue new guidelines that will allow adult day centers to reopen.

“Adult day centers and senior centers are vital providers in our aging services network,” said Human Services Secretary Mike Smith. “With most older Vermonters now vaccinated, we are now ready to allow these centers to re-open for group activities such as exercise, the arts and social groups."

Masks and social distancing will still be required, and Smith says many centers will operate at reduced capacities.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Study shows strategy to test incarcerated Vermonters may have saved lives

Vermont’s strategy to conduct frequent coronavirus testing of all inmates at its correctional facilities may have helped prevent deaths, according to a new national study.

The report, from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, an offshoot of the D.C.-based think tank the Council on Criminal Justice, found that COVID-19 death rates in prisons were more than three times the rate within the community.

The disparity was worst among states that didn’t conduct mass testing at correctional facilities.

Kevin Schnepel, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University, is one of the study’s authors.

“Vermont certainly stuck out as a correctional system that was fairly proactive compared to a lot of other systems in terms of testing,” Schnepel said.

Vermont is the only state in the country with no COVID-19 fatalities among people held in correctional facilities. The Department of Corrections tests each of its prisons every six weeks.

- Liam Elder-Connors

2. House announces pension reform delayed until 2022

Teachers and state employees in Vermont have at least temporarily beaten back an attempt to cut their pension benefits.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski announced Friday that she’s shelving a controversial pension reform proposal until next year.

“The added challenges of doing this kind of deep policy work in a virtual environment and not being in the Statehouse together are creating obstacles towards having a difficult yet solutions-oriented conversation,” Krowinski said.

A proposal unveiled by House lawmakers last week would have increased employees’ contributions to the pension fund, and reduced their future retirement benefits.

The plan drew outrage from Vermont’s largest labor unions.

- Peter Hirschfeld

House votes to allow Winooski residents who are noncitizens to vote

By a two-to-one margin, the Vermont House has voted to allow Winooski residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote on local issues.

The charter change notes noncitizens must be in the country under a "federally sanctioned legal category."

Voters in that community gave their strong support to the proposal in November. But because it involves a local charter change, it must be approved by the Legislature.

Winooski Rep. Taylor Small urged her colleagues to support the legislation.

"And that what we are doing is, moving towards a truer sense of democracy in having members of our community who are paying taxes, who are interacting and engaging, being also able to have their voice heard."

Opponents argued that it's not appropriate to allow residents who are not citizens to vote on school budgets, because local spending decisions can have an impact on the statewide property rate.

- Bob Kinzel

New legislation widens scope of 5 cent deposit law in Vermont’s bottle bill

Legislation making the first substantial changes in Vermont's bottle bill in almost 50 years is working its way through the House.

The bill, as approved by the Ways and Means Committee, would widen the scope of the 5 cent deposit law.

Currently, millions of water, juice, wine and non-carbonated beverage containers are exempt from the law.

Paul Burns is the executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

"Nobody bought a 16 ounce single serve plastic container full of water 50 years ago, but now we're seeing those kinds of containers amount to almost 300 million beverages a year, that are sold here that are not covered by today's bottle bill," Burns said.

The committee rejected an effort to raise the bottle deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents. The bill will now be reviewed by the House Appropriations Committee.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Biden's infrastructure proposal includes extensions to Vermont train routes

A new map from Amtrak proposes several upgrades and extensions of passenger rail service in Vermont.

The map was released following President Joe Biden's proposal this week for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which would allocate billions of dollars to passenger train service.

Amtrak's map includes an extension of the Ethan Allen line from Rutland to Burlington, which is near completion. It also includes a long-planned extension of the Vermonter train from St. Albans to Montreal.

Carl Fowler is a rail advocate and member of the state's rail council.

"On the Vermont side, the map basically simply commits them to finishing what we know is already underway, as far as our part of the country is concerned,” Fowler said. “Now elsewhere in the U.S., this shows a lot of new services and a lot that are very interesting."

While Amtrak's proposal doesn't go into detail, Fowler says he hopes it includes additional runs of the two trains that serve Vermont.

- Henry Epp

4. Bennington police search for suspects in BLM mural vandalism

Bennington police say they are looking for three young people who appear to have vandalized the city's Black Lives Matters mural.

The Bennington Banner reports surveillance camera footage showed two young women and a young man defacing the mural Wednesday evening with what appeared to be chalk.

The police say the suspects also wrote “White Lives Matter” and “ALM,” an apparent reference to “All Lives Matter.”

The mural, which was painted by volunteers last year and subject to protests, suffered no permanent damage.

Investigators say they believe the suspects are local, but are not releasing images of the minors at this time. Anyone with information is being urged to come forward.

- Brittany Patterson

5. Early spring drought raises concerns about impacts to drinking water

An early spring drought forecast for much of New England has state officials in the region worrying about potential impacts to drinking water.

New Hampshire Public Radio reports much of the region saw a severe drought throughout last year, and key indicators like stream levels and rainfall have not gotten back above average through the winter, even with recent rain and snow.

The latest US Drought Monitor data shows much of central and northeast Vermont currently experiencing moderate drought, with the rest of the state seeing abnormally dry conditions. Similar conditions are in neighboring New Hampshire and Northern New York.

New Hampshire officials say severe drought led to dry wells last year, and they anticipate more well failures in a potential second year of drought, unless conditions improve.

Officials warn local water systems and private well users should start preparing for possible drought now, as well as heed local warnings against brush burning and to curtail outdoor water use.

- Matthew Smith

6. Some visitors allowed at UVM Medical Center starting Friday

Starting Friday, patients at hospitals operated by the UVM Health Network will once again be allowed to have some visitors.

The hospital system announced that fully vaccinated people will now be allowed to visit family and friends. Patients may have one visitor per day, and visitors will be asked to show proof of vaccination. Masks are required.

Exceptions where unvaccinated people may visit include end-of-life care, pediatrics, and labor and delivery.

The hospital group says the visitation policy changes are in line with the latest guidance from the state. Policies may vary slightly across the network's hospitals.

- Brittany Patterson

7. Sanders announces more than $33M for Vt. federally-qualified health centers

Sen. Bernie Sanders was in Burlington Thursday to announce more than $33 million in emergency funding for Vermont's 11 federally-qualified health centers.

At the city's Riverside Community Health Center, Sanders said the funds are part of the pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan.

WCAX reports leaders of several health centers across Vermont were at the event, and pledged to use the money to pay for things like mobile testing and vaccine administration to underserved community members, particularly those experiencing homelessness or in hard-to-reach rural areas.

Sanders says one in three Vermonters rely on health centers for affordable health care.

- Matthew Smith

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