News Roundup: In Fully Vaxxed Population of 433K, State Reports 630 'Breakthrough' Cases So Far
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about breakthrough COVID-19 cases, the governor’s offer to welcome Afghan refugees here and more for Tuesday, Aug. 17.
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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta variant is now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and find the latest vaccination data online any time.
1. State officials report 61 new COVID cases Tuesday
Vermont health officials reported 61 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday.
The first update of statistics since last week — due to the Bennington Battle Day state holiday — shows a similar number of cases reported Monday, after a weekend of more than 100 cases reported Saturday and 130 reported Sunday.
Some 25 people are now hospitalized due to COVID-19, nine of whom require intensive care.
The rate of eligible Vermonters with at least one dose of a vaccine has now hit 85.1%.
Every county in Vermont, save Orange County, is currently seeing high or significant coronavirus transmission, prompting the CDC to recommend wearing masks indoors, even if fully vaccinated.
- Matthew Smith
Some Vermonters now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine booster shot
Vermonters with moderately or severely compromised immune systems are now eligible for a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine says only a small fraction of Vermont’s population will qualify for the extra dose.
“The eligible population is estimated to be approximately 3% of the U.S. adult population, and they include some very focused groups,” he said.
Those groups include people recovering from an organ transplant, and people with advanced or untreated HIV infections.
The CDC this week issued new guidance that recommends a third dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for immunocompromised individuals.
People with compromised immune systems who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are not yet eligible for another dose.
- Peter Hirschfeld
With delta variant, COVID cases reach highest weekly total since April
COVID case counts in Vermont continued their upward trend over the past week, with 758 Vermonters contracting COVID-19 over the past seven days.
That's the highest weekly case count since April. And Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine blames the highly contagious delta variant for the rise in cases.
“This means anyone who’s unvaccinated, both people who have chosen not to get vaccinated and those who aren’t yet eligible and under age 12, are at great risk of getting and spreading the virus,” Levine said.
According to modeling from the Scott administration, weekly case counts will continue to rise through the beginning of September. That same modeling predicts that cases will start to decline again by the middle of next month.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont documents 600+ “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases
Some 630 Vermonters who’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have contracted the disease anyway.
But Gov. Phil Scott says the existence of so-called “breakthrough cases” should not erode Vermonters’ confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccine. Those 630 cases occurred in a population of 433,000 vaccinated Vermonters, according to state data.
“We always knew vaccines weren’t 100% effective,” Scott said. “But they have minimized the severity, because in the rare cases where a fully vaccinated person does get it, they’re unlikely to go to the hospital.”
Vermont has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the country. And Scott says that’s why it also has the lowest rate of hospitalization due to COVID-19.
- Peter Hirschfeld
2. Gov. Scott told Biden administration Vermont welcomes Afghan refugees
Gov. Phil Scott told the Biden administration this week that Vermont is prepared to welcome Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban.
Scott says he sent a letter to the U.S. State Department offering up Vermont as a place for refugee resettlement.
“And it appears that there may be a need in the very near future, so again, we’re ready, willing and able to help those who are coming from war-torn countries,” Scott said.
At his weekly press conference earlier on Tuesday, Scott criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Scott says he supports the decision to end the U.S. military presence in the country, but that Biden should have evacuated vulnerable Afghans prior to pulling out U.S. service members.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Congressional delegation urges Biden administration to waive visa requirements for Afghan women
All three members of Vermont's Congressional delegation are urging the Biden administration to waive visa requirements to protect women leaders in Afghanistan from the new Taliban government.
In a letter to the administration, the delegation called for the creation of a new humanitarian visa to "allow for fast, humane and efficient relocation" of these Afghan women as soon as possible.
The group includes judges, human rights activists, parliamentarians and military personnel.
Congressman Peter Welch says there's a need for urgent action because of the Taliban's past record of mistreating women.
"You can't be doing visa processing when people are going to be murdered,” Welch said. “You've got to get them out, save them, and then do the visa process."
Evacuation flights from the main airport in Kabul resumed Tuesday.
- Bob Kinzel
3. Public Utility Commission reverses course, keeps proceedings remote
The Public Utility Commission is backing away from its planned move to allow in-person oral arguments, due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
The PUC announced in June that it would be shifting back to in-person hearings after more than a year of holding remote conferences.
But the commission announced last week that because the number of COVID cases is rising, all scheduling conferences and oral arguments will continue to be held remotely.
The commission says it will decide about site visits on a case-by-case basis.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
4. Rutland law firm sues developer of would-be senior living community
A Rutland law firm is suing the Florida developer who wants to build a $60 million senior living community on the campus of the former College of St. Joseph. It’s the latest sign of trouble for the planned development.
The lawsuit, filed in Vermont Superior Court, alleges Stuart Mills and his associate John Weatherhogg owe more than $60,000 in legal fees to Facey Goss & McPhee, the Rutland law firm that had been representing them.
The suit alleges Mills and Weatherhogg were not truthful about their financial resources and that Mills has a history of creating undercapitalized shell companies to shield himself from creditors.
Mills declined to comment.
“Stuff that’s in litigation no,” he said. “And you don’t have anything better to do than report on a lawsuit? Wow.”
Weatherhogg also declined to comment.
Mills has faced breach-of-contract suits before. Last year, a firm sued Mills for unpaid loans totaling $125,000.
In an interview with VPR last month, Mills said the senior living project on the former college campus was still moving forward, and he expected to close on the 117-acre property in late fall.
- Nina Keck
5. Environmental advocates file suit against state in the name of endangered bats
Environmental advocates say the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to require a permit for a mosquito control program in Addison and Rutland counties.
Jamey Fidel, with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says insecticides being sprayed by planes pose a risk to endangered bat species.
“That it can get on their fur and actually ingest those chemicals,” Fidel said. “So our belief is as long as there’s a risk of injury to bats, and that’s been established, then a … permit is necessary,” Fidel said.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Agency of Natural Resources on Monday.
Agency officials say there’s no compelling evidence that the mosquito control operation is harming endangered bats.
- Peter Hirschfeld
6. Vermont Creamery gets funds to research whether more goat dairies are viable
A Vermont company has received funding to research whether the state is a viable place to raise and milk goats, potentially as one solution for struggling cow dairy farmers.
A USDA-funded Agency of Agriculture program, the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, recently gave $150,000 to Vermont Creamery to identify processors’ fluid milk needs, what technical assistance would be helpful to farmers, and whether existing cow dairies want to convert to goat operations.
Laura Ginsburg, who leads the dairy business center, says she’s already hearing from cow dairy farmers eager to try something new.
“I've received probably half a dozen phone calls this year alone, from current cow, dairy farmers or cow dairy farmers who have exited the business within the past year that are interested in the goat opportunity,” she said.
Vermont currently has 581 conventional cow dairy farms, a 40% drop since 2012. According to Ginsburg, some advantages to making the conversion from cows to goats could include a higher price for milk, and less risk of animal-related worker injury.
At Vermont Creamery, mission manager Eliza Leeper says the company can’t source enough goat's milk from local farms.
“We are eager to purchase all the goat milk we can source here in Vermont, we are not able to get enough milk from Vermont farms to meet our demand,” Leeper said.
Vermont Creamery’s research results are expected next year.
- Elodie Reed
7. NEK broadband expansion org gets federal coronavirus relief funds
A volunteer organization trying to expand broadband internet in the Northeast Kingdom has received more than $250,000 from the federal government.
The funding is part of the American Rescue Plan. It will allow NEK Broadband to hire paid staffers to implement the expanded network.
More than $100,000 of the funding will help complete a utility pole inventory in the region, inspecting more than 5,200 poles for additional cable space.
- Karen Anderson
8. Bear hunting season begins in September
September kicks off the beginning of bear hunting season in the state.
It’s when 10,000 or so Vermonters get a special tag and take to the woods. That’s until mid-November, when hunters can shoot a bear during the first few days of deer season. Usually only 600 or so come away with their prize.
Hunting has helped keep the state’s bear population stable, and healthy. That’s according to Mark Scott, the director of wildlife for Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department.
“We’re right where we want to be from our management plan for number of bears, 4,500, 5,000, right now,” Scott said.
Those targets are set through public input and consideration of how many animals the land can handle.
Scott says bear meat has a mild, almost sweet flavor, similar to beef, and that it needs to be cooked thoroughly.
- Lexi Krupp
Elodie Reed compiled and edited this post.