News Roundup: Vermont's COVID-19 Death Toll Reaches 270
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about more people dying from the coronavirus, lawmakers’ plans for a return to the Statehouse in January and more for Friday, Aug. 20.
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1. State officials report 112 new COVID cases, 2 additional deaths
Health officials reported 112 new COVID-19 infections Friday.
Two more people have also died from the virus. The state's pandemic death toll now stands at 270.
A total of 26 people are hospitalized with COVID-19. Nearly half, 12, are in intensive care.
Eleven of Vermont’s 14 counties are now experiencing "high or substantial" community spread of COVID-19. That's enough for the CDC to recommend mask-wearing indoors, even if fully vaccinated.
Only Orange, Lamoille and Essex counties are seeing spread below that threshold.
- Matthew Smith
2. Vt. lawmakers finalize plan for returning to Statehouse in January (pandemic-permitting)
After more than a year of legislating remotely, Vermont lawmakers have finalized initial COVID mitigation plans for their return to the Statehouse in January.
But Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning says there’s no guarantee that lawmakers will return to Montpelier for the 2022 legislative session.
“It may very well be that by the first of January, this pandemic has come back full force, and we need to completely rethink about going into the building at all, and that’s one possibility we all know we have in reserve,” he siad.
Benning says the Legislature has everything it needs to conduct another session remotely, if needed.
If lawmakers do return to the Statehouse, they’re recommending capacity limits in legislative committee rooms. A new report also suggests some legislative staff be rehoused in other buildings in the capitol complex, in order to free up space in the Statehouse.
Benning says those are short-term solutions to a much bigger problem.
“We need some serious expansion of the building, and we need to raise that to the priority level that it deserves and dedicate money towards it,” he said.
Benning says he’s floated the idea of building another floor on top of the existing cafeteria. Benning says the Statehouse heating and ventilation system is also in need of an expensive overhaul.
- Peter Hirschfeld
3. Six Vermont counties experiencing moderate drought
As of Thursday, six northern Vermont counties are still experiencing moderate drought, though much of southern Vermont has seen above average precipitation this summer.
Abnormally dry conditions in northern Vermont remained about the same this week, with an estimated 89,000 Vermonters living in drought. That’s according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Data from the USGS shows stream flows continue to be high in much of southern Vermont, while groundwater levels in parts of northeastern Vermont sit at a mere 10% percent of normal.
Meanwhile, data from the Northeast Regional Climate Center shows parts of Bennington and Windham counties have seen twice as much rain this summer as in a normal year.
- Abagael Giles
4. Vermont ski resorts requiring foreign workers to be vaccinated
This is the time of year Vermont ski resorts are interviewing foreign workers who want to come to the U.S. this winter.
The program was severely limited last year due to COVID-19.
Vermont Ski Areas Association president Molly Mahar says there are still questions about how the program will play out this season as the pandemic stretches into the fall.
“The industry on a national level is definitely advocating for the ability to get these workers into the country, because we definitely need them this year, probably more so than we have in the past,” Mahar said.
Mahar says ski resorts are requiring that foreign workers be vaccinated, and the industry is waiting to see if the Biden administration puts vaccination and quarantine requirements on the program.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
5. USDA announces pandemic payments for dairy farmers
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that farmers who received less money for fluid milk than what it cost to produce between July and December of last year can now get reimbursed for up to 80% of that difference.
At a press conference Thursday in Burlington, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the pandemic-era "Farmers to Food Box Program" unintentionally distorted the milk market in a way that disproportionately lowered revenue for smaller farms, who eagerly participated.
"Today, we are launching a $350 million effort to try to compensate a bit those farmers who suffered loss of value because of the distortion in the market during the pandemic,” Vilsack said.
The USDA says payments will be distributed through cooperatives and distributors. This program is similar to the more-permanent Dairy Margin Protection Program, through which farmers can pay for a kind of insurance against low milk prices.
Between January 2020 and July of this year, at least 55 Vermont dairy farms stopped shipping milk.
- Abagael Giles and Elodie Reed
State officials say farmers responsible for >90% Lake Champlain phosphorus reduction since 2014
Vermont officials have told the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary that farm efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff into waterways, and federal money to support that work, are paying off to improve the water quality of Lake Champlain.
They met yesterday with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Patrick Leahy for a roundtable discussion about the lake cleanup work.
State officials said agriculture has been responsible for more than 90% of all reported phosphorus reductions in Vermont since 2014.
That's been achieved by boosting cover crops, adding more than 30,000 acres since 2014, and by adding 10,000 acres of conservation tillage.
The Environmental Protection Agency mandated that Vermont clean up the lake in 2016.
- Associated Press
6. Secretary of State urges municipalities to keep making meetings available through remote tech
Secretary of State Jim Condos is urging town officials to continue to make their meetings available to the public using remote technology, but Condos says there's no law requiring this to happen.
Condos says towns were required to offer this option when Gov. Phil Scott signed an emergency COVID order prohibiting in-person meetings back in the winter of 2020.
But Condos says when the governor rescinded that order in June, the state's Open Meeting Law went back to its original requirements.
“It certainly engaged more of the public in those meetings, so there were more people watching those meetings,” he said. “The spirit of the law is to allow a general access to the public, but it's certainly not mandatory."
Condos says he's pleased that a number of towns have decided to continue to provide access to their local meetings using remote technology.
- Bob Kinzel
Vt. Sec. of State urging U.S. House to pass revised voting rights legislation
Secretary of State Jim Condos is strongly urging Congress to pass a revised voting rights bill next week.
The House is scheduled to consider a plan that establishes some federal standards for early voting and bilingual ballots.
The legislation also prohibits states from enacting restrictive voter identification laws.
Condos says the bill is needed, because some Republican legislatures around the country are adopting laws that he says are intended to suppress voting.
“The more people who vote, the better our democracy is, the stronger our democracy is, and we believe that anybody who's an eligible American and an eligible voter should be allowed to cast a ballot, and we want to reduce as many obstructions and barriers as possible,” he said.
It's not clear at this time if any members of the House Republican caucus will support the legislation.
- Bob Kinzel
7. One of youngest people to complete Appalachian Trail heading to kindergarten this fall
A Virginia boy who recently hiked the Appalachian Trail is preparing for his next big adventure: kindergarten.
Five-year-old Harvey Sutton tagged along with his parents over more than 2,100 miles to complete the feat in 209 days.
He was 4 years old when he and his parents began their walk in January in Georgia. He was 5 years and 4 months old when the family completed the journey last week in Maine.
That puts him among the youngest to complete the trail.
Harvey says it was hard work, but checking out frogs, lizards and other wildlife along the way was fun ... and so was fueling up with Skittles sprinkled onto peanut butter tortillas during the hike.
- Associated Press
Elodie Reed compiled and edited this post.