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News Roundup: Vermont Dept. Of Health Reports 105 New COVID-19 Cases

A yellow background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the "R" of roundup
Elodie Reed
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VPR

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Wednesday, Sept. 8.

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.

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. Vermont Dept. of Health reports 105 new COVID-19 cases

There were 105 new coronavirus infections in Vermont Wednesday, health officials reported.

Rutland County had nearly a quarter of the new cases, with 23.

Currently, 32 people are hospitalized with the virus. Seven people require intensive care.

The rate of eligible Vermonters with at least one dose of the vaccine is now 86.6%.

Matthew Smith

Three more incarcerated people and two staff at Vermont prisons have tested positive for COVID-19

Three more inmates and two more staff members at Vermont prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, bring the total to 15 cases among inmates and three among staff at four of the state’s six correctional facilities.

The Department of Corrections announced Tuesday that one incarcerated person at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, and two at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, were found to be infected.

The two positive cases in staff were at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

The Newport prison now has a total 13 inmates with COVID-19. The department says twenty other inmates, and seven staff who were previously infected, have been medically cleared.

The Newport and St. Albans correctional facilities are in full lockdown. More testing is underway.

The Associated Press

The North Country has the highest positivity rate in New York State

New York's North Country has the highest positive COVID-19 test rate in all of New York state.
North Country Public Radio reports nearly 5.5% of the state's COVID-19 tests came back positive on Monday, and was above 5% throughout the Labor Day weekend.

That compares to the statewide average of just under 3.3%.

St. Lawrence and Franklin counties have the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the North Country.

The region also has a relatively low vaccination rate, making for a county health officials call a dangerous mix with the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus.

Health officials urge North Country residents to get vaccinated and to wear masks inside public places.

Matthew Smith

Plattsburgh DMV closes after multiple employees test positive for COVID-19

The DMV in New York's Clinton County has closed the foreseeable future after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.

WCAX reports the Plattsburgh office was open briefly before it abruptly closed Tuesday, around 11 a.m.

County officials say several DMV workers tested positive for the virus at the Margaret Street office, which will stay closed until those results come back.

The county Health Department says the public did not have extended contact with any positive employees.

The county is directing residents in need of licenses renewals, vehicle registrations and other services to use the DMV's website.

Matthew Smith

Dartmouth College announces new COVID-19 restrictions

Dartmouth College has announced new COVID-19 related restrictions ahead of classes starting next week.

Officials say vaccinated students will be tested for the virus weekly, while unvaccinated students will be tested twice a week.

Masks must be worn in all indoor locations, with a few exceptions, and officials also plan to use a campus tennis center for isolation housing if there is a significant outbreak.

Since Saturday, campus buildings have been open only to enrolled students and employees. Classes start Monday, Sept. 13.

The Associated Press

2. Vermonters can weigh in this evening on proposed changes to the state's education funding

Wednesday evening, Vermonters will get a chance to weigh in on proposed changes to the state’s education funding system.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to boost financial support for schools in high-poverty areas.

A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Vermont found that it’s far more expensive to educate children from poverty. But that same study said Vermont’s education funding formula doesn’t fully account for those higher costs.

Lawmakers are now looking for ways to direct more money to schools in high-poverty districts.

But they’re split over whether to reconfigure the education funding formula, or create a special grant program instead.

Vermonters can weigh in on the debate at a virtual public hearing on Wednesday evening at 5,

3. Vt. superintendents call on governor to require masks in schools and outdoors

Some Vermont school officials are calling on Gov. Phil Scott to require masks in schools and indoors in parts of the state where there's substantial or high rates of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Two school superintendents who spoke during a Tuesday news conference said a statewide mandate to require masks in schools would make it easier for them and their colleagues to protect children during the pandemic.

Currently, the Vermont Agency of Education is recommending that schools require masks for the first 10 days of school.

The agency says schools can choose to drop the mask requirement once a school has 80% of it's eligible population vaccinated. Children under age 12 are currently ineligible to get a COVID-19 shot.

The Associated Press

School districts across Vermont have already begun to see cases of COVID-19.

But one superintendent says the Department of Health hasn’t provided a timely response to requests for help.

Montpelier/Roxbury Superintendent Libby Bonesteel says that during the last academic year, her district worked hand in glove with the department of health to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks in district schools.

But when she called the department last week to find out how to deal with five confirmed cases among students, she says the experience was much different.   

“And we couldn’t get anyone on the phone to support us with our response, let alone the guidance for what we should be doing in our classrooms — not one person we could get on the phone from the department of health," Bonesteel said.

Bonesteel says days passed before anyone from the Department of Health returned her voice messages.

State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso says the delay was due to problem with the phone system that has since been fixed.

Peter Hirschfeld

Calls for statewide mask mandate in Vermont schools grow louder

Calls for a statewide mask mandate in Vermont schools are growing louder.

Public health experts and school administrators held a press conference Tuesday to call on Gov. Phil Scott to institute a mask mandate.

Anne Sosin is a health researcher at Dartmouth College.

“Vermont has shown the U.S. that it takes a village to reopen schools during a pandemic," Sosin said. "The state, however, must not leave villages on their own this fall.”

Sosin says masking in schools is needed to protect children who aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Scott says a statewide mask mandate isn’t needed, because almost all Vermont school districts have adopted local masking requirements on their own.

Peter Hirschfeld

4. Rutland-based Casella Waste Systems purchases Grow Compost of Moretown

Rutland-based Casella Waste Systems has purchased Grow Compost of Moretown, one of the only other food scrap haulers that serves most of Vermont.

Vermont has banned food scraps from landfills since last July, and requires haulers to offer compost pickup to larger apartment buildings and non-residential customers.

Casella Vice President Joseph Fusco says this purchase is a direct response to the state's composting mandate.

"This is us building our ability to meet the mandates of public policy, and [providing] the service that public policy is asking Vermonters to do," Fusco said.

Neither company would disclose the purchase price. The sale was finalized on Sept. 1.

One consumer advocate says the sale could be bad for Vermont customers.

Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says the purchase raises concerns about Casella's growing control over Vermont's waste stream.

"Casella has been willing to operate with pretty sharp elbows with respect to competition," Burns said. "And if there's no competition, then there's no one else you can go to for a better deal."

A spokesperson for Casella argues this purchase will not stop competition,and said the company encourages entrepreneurs to enter the waste hauling business.

Read the full story, and hear more in today's episode of The Frequency.

Henry Epp

5. Pending proposal would relocate 100 Afghans fleeing the Taliban to Vermont

A resettlement proposal submitted jointly by the US Comitteee for Refugees and Immigrants, and Vermont’s Refugee Office, still needs federal approval.

But Amila Merdzanovic, director of the refugee committee in Vermont, told city officials in Rutland Tuesday night that she’s optimistic the state will be able to find new homes for 100 Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

“I can tell you that over the past two weeks, we have been inundated — it's an understatement — with calls and emails from Vermonters from around the state, offering to support Afghans," Merdzanovic said.

Merdzanovic tried to ensure transparency – something some city leaders felt was lacking five years ago when the community was divided over Syrians refugees.

"The Afghans entering under Humanitarian Parole Designation will be subjected to all the security screening and medical screenings to be sure that  they enter the United States fully vetted. We know that’s one of the main questions on people’s minds,” she said.

The situation is changing rapidly and she did not provide a timeline, but if approved, the first arrivals could settle in Chittenden County, and later, in communities like Rutland.

The newcomers will not be refugees, but Humanitarian Parolees.

Merdzanovic says they'll be allowed to work, but will not have access to public assistance. Because of that, USCRI  hopes to pair every Afghan coming with a host family.

Other communities in Vermont are being considered for resettlement, but according to federal guidelines they have to be within 100 miles of USCRI's Colchester headquarters.

Nina Keck

6. Amid delta variant, lawmakers weigh protocol for upcoming session

Vermont's legislative leaders will consider a plan that would allow lawmakers to vote, even if they're attending the session remotely.

Legislators are on track to return to the Statehouse in January, and current rules require them to be present in the building to vote.

Last session, almost all of the Legislature's work involved Zoom meetings, and members were able to vote remotely.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint wants the Joint Rules Committee to discuss possibly extending a hybrid voting approach.

"I have been receiving a number of questions from senators around the issue of needing to be present to vote and not doing hybrid participation and so I just want to say I think we do need to probably revisit this before January," Balint said.

The Joint Rules Committee is working on a plan to allow lawmakers, members of the public, and the media to return to the building for the 2022 session.

The proposal calls for creating larger spaces for high-profile committees, to avoid unsafe crowded conditions.

Representative Alice Emmons leads the House committee in charge of public buildings and state lands and property.

She believes the democratic process works better when lawmakers are able to meet in person.

"Our legislative process is really based on us all working face to face and building relationships with each other and we want to keep that in place," Emmons said.

Emmons says the return to the Statehouse will be re-evaluated if conditions change in the coming weeks.

The committee expects to discuss the hybrid voting plan when it meets later this month.

Bob Kinzel

7. 3 Vermont state troopers are under federal investigation over fake COVID-19 vaccination cards

Three Vermont state troopers are under federal investigation following allegations they were involved in making fake COVID-19 vaccination cards — that's according to the Department of Public Safety.

All three troopers have resigned.

Two of the accused troopers left the force in early August after a colleague raised concerns to a supervisor.

The third resigned on Sept. 3, following an investigation by DPS.

Col. Matthew Birmingham, the director of the state police, in a written statement, said the incident has "tarnished the reputation" of the agency.

According to a press release, the troopers are suspected of having "varying roles" in the creation of the fake cards.

DPS says it reported the incident to federal authorities in August and an investigation is underway. The U.S. Attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Liam Elder-Connors

Abagael Giles compiled and edited this post.

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