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News Roundup: State Reports 31 New COVID Cases, 2 Deaths Since Friday

A fish in a waterfall
Lydia Brown
/
VPR
Steelhead rainbow trout jump up Willoughby Falls in Orleans on their way to spawning grounds on Sunday, May 2.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, May 3.

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1. State officials report 31 new COVID cases Monday

Vermont health officials reported 31 new COVID-19 infections statewide Monday.

That's after documenting more than 160 new cases over the weekend, putting the state's total case count at more than 23,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Two more Vermonters have died from COVID-19 since Friday. In all, the pandemic has now taken 248 Vermont lives since March of last year.

The latest state data shows 15 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 today, four of whom are in the ICU.

Some 62% of adult Vermonters have now started vaccination against the virus with their first shot. About 44% have been fully vaccinated.

- Matthew Smith

2. State takes down online first-time unemployment claim system due to fraud

The state of Vermont has shut down its online first-time unemployment claim system. The move comes after the Department of Labor says it found that 90% of recent claims were fraudulent.

The department says it shut its online claim application on Wednesday, but did not publicize that move until Friday.

The department says Vermonters who need to make an unemployment claim can do so by phone. The number is 877-214-3330.

Anyone who's received notices about unemployment benefits but did not apply should contact the department immediately.

- Henry Epp

3. State auditor says state's economic recovery grant program needs to change formula

Gov. Phil Scott wants state lawmakers to allocate an additional $50 million in federal coronavirus relief to help businesses before the Legislature adjourns in May. But the state auditor says part of the program in question – which has granted aid to almost 5,000 businesses so far – should be retooled.

In a preview last week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer told lawmakers his ongoing audit of the Economic Recovery Grants Program will show that in some cases, taxpayer dollars supported businesses that didn’t need relief.

Set up last summer, the more than $330 million program was supposed to replace some of the revenue Vermont businesses lost during the pandemic.

But Hoffer says the way the program calculated "need" meant some businesses received grants that exceeded their actual losses.

Going forward, he says, the formula should change. Hoffer says he likely won't complete his audit before the end of the current session.

- Abagael Giles

More from VPR: Vt. Distributed $330 Million In Business Recovery Grants. Here's How It Worked For The Ski Industry

4. Department of Mental Health commissioner steps down

Sarah Squirrell, who has been leading the Department of Mental Health for two years, is resigning.

Human Service Secretary Mike Smith announced Friday that Squirrell will be stepping down on July 1. Cory Gustafson, who helps run the state’s Medicaid program, is also leaving.

In a press release announcing the moves, Smith said Squirrell helped lead the state through the pandemic, and that she was able to work with the Brattleboro Retreat to help stabilize the hospital’s operations.

Smith did not announce replacements for Squirrell or Gustafson, and he said the state would be actively interviewing candidates to fill the jobs.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

5. Vermont House supports eliminating statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood physical abuse

The Vermont House has given its strong support to legislation that eliminates the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood physical abuse.

Under current law, minors who have been physically abused are required to file a legal claim by the time they are 21.

Enosburg Rep. Felisha Leffler says that means many abuse survivors never have a chance to pursue legal actions.

"As a result, these victims are permanently barred from ever being compensated for what in many cases are horrendous injuries,” Leffler said.

Leffler says the legislation is a companion bill to a measure passed last session that eliminates the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse.

- Bob Kinzel

Vt. Senate approves bill allowing undocumented workers’ families to enroll in Dr. Dynasaur

The Vermont Senate has approved legislation that allows the families of undocumented workers to enroll in the state's Dr. Dynasaur program.

The program provides health care services for children aged 18 and younger and pregnant women.

Senate Health and Welfare chairwoman Ginny Lyons says the bill will allow undocumented workers and their families to access health services and avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency room.

"This little bill that we have before us really helps those same people — it helps pregnant women and children to get the care that they need — it is very much a part of our Vermont culture to see that happen so it is an important bill,” Lyons said.

Gov. Phil Scott says he supports the bill and will sign it when it reaches his desk.

- Bob Kinzel

6. Former Koffee Kup Bakery files class-action lawsuit

A former employee of Koffee Kup Bakery has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, which abruptly shut down earlier this week. That's according to Seven Days.

The suit alleges that the baked goods company violated federal law by not giving 60 days advance warning to employees, as well as state and local officials, before laying off close to 250 people.

Koffee Kup shut down just a few weeks after it was bought by a private equity firm. An advisor for that firm says the company suffered significant financial losses over the past few years, and was unable to find a new investor who could keep it afloat.

The lawsuit seeks 60 days of pay and benefits for employees.

- Henry Epp

7. Gov. vowed summer programming for all who want it, but staffing a challenge

Gov. Phil Scott has vowed to provide summer programming to any student who wants it this year. But education officials say they’re struggling to find enough workers to staff the programs.

Holly Morehouse is executive director of an organization called Vermont Afterschool.

“We’re hearing from programs all over the state that they’re still hiring, that there is a need for staff and that in some areas, they have concern: Will they be able to find enough people?” she said.

Morehouse noted her organization has set up a website to recruit workers, and that summer programs are hoping college and high school students will apply for job openings.

Read/hear the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont school districts creating new programs to address student mental health

Secretary of Education Dan French says school districts across Vermont are ramping up new programs to address their students’ mental health needs.

French says a recent survey of Vermont schools indicated that many are planning to use COVID relief money to create new mental health infrastructure.

“Many districts expressed an interest in improving their systems of student supports,” French said. “Some school districts are planning on creating new recovery coordinator positions to manage these support systems at the district level.”

Surveys have shown that students of all ages are experiencing increased rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues as a result of the pandemic.

French says many districts are partnering with local mental health agencies to develop the new programs.

- Peter Hirschfeld

8. U.S.-Canada border closure "fundamentally harming... special relationship"

Officials from Quebec and New York's North Country met last week for a virtual seminar around reopening the U.S.-Canada border.

The border has been closed to nonessential travel since March of 2020 and will remain closed until at least May 21.

WAMC reports North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas says when the border reopens will determine how cross-border relationships interests continue.

"It is fundamentally harming the U.S.-Canadian special relationship,” Douglas said. “And the fact that it has gone on so long has already created lasting damage that we’ll have to work long and hard to repair."

Those who attended the virtual meeting agreed vaccination rates on both sides of the border will be key to its eventual reopening.

A potential Canadian federal election in the fall could also influence reopening.

- Matthew Smith

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