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News roundup: Vermont's COVID positivity rate decreases slightly, hospitalizations go up

A blue background with the words Vermont News Roundup with a green Vermont icon over the "R"
Elodie Reed
/
VPR

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, a federal bill allowing farmer input on milk prices and more for Friday, Dec. 3.

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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. Vermont's COVID positivity rate decreases slightly, hospitalizations go up

The Health Department reports the state's 7-day positivity rate and hospitalizations remain high Friday, as Vermont officials counted 482 new coronavirus infections and two more virus-linked deaths.

COVID hospitalizations reached record highs earlier this week, and had fallen slightly for the past two days, but have now jumped to 81 — among the highest number of hospitalizations Vermont has seen in the pandemic.

State ICUs are still treating 22 people.

The average numbers of cases coming back positive over the last week — Vermont's positivity rate — fell slightly, but at 5%, that metric remains among the highest the state has seen during the pandemic.

Some 83% of Vermonters are now at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, including 44% of kids between the ages of 5 and 11.

- Matthew Smith

Scott administration sticking with current public health policy amid high COVID test positivity rate

More than 5% of COVID tests administered in Vermont over the past week have come back positive.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine has previously said that a 5% positivity rate would be cause for concern.

But he says the Scott administration has no plans to revise its public health guidance now that Vermont has crossed that threshold.

“Next things would be on the level of very, very stringent kinds of restrictions on people’s lives, which a 5% positivity rate would not be the prime force that would generate that,” he said.

The 5.2% positivity rate right now is the highest in Vermont since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Department of Health.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Businesses are mixed on the new mask mandate in Vermont’s most populous city

Members of the Burlington Business Association are expressing varied reactions to the city’s impending mask mandate, which the city council unanimously approved Wednesday.

Association Executive Director Kelly Devine says some business owners are glad the city is taking the burden off them to require masks, while others wonder how the mandate will work on a practical level.

“I can put up a sign on my door, that’s easy to do. Most businesses already have a sign anyway. What are the city’s expectations of us to enforce this on what is technically private property?” she said.

Devine says retailers are also worried about female staff, in particular, having to confront customers not following the mask mandate, which went into effect Friday.

She referenced Wednesday’s contentious city council meeting, where dozens of anti-mask advocates heckled pro-ordinance councilors throughout the mandate debate.

The new policy gives the city authority to fine those who don't comply.

- Kevin Trevellyan

COVID continues to spread through Newport state prison

Another 13 people held at the state prison in Newport have tested positive for COVID-19.

A total of 40 incarcerated individuals at Northern State Correctional Facility have tested positive since Nov. 10. The Department of Corrections says 27 of those people have been medically cleared of the virus.

DOC says another three staffers at the prison also tested positive. Fourteen staff have tested positive during this outbreak. Eight have been cleared of the virus, according to DOC.

Meanwhile the department says there's still an active COVID outbreak at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, where one staff member and one incarcerated individual are currently COVID-positive.

- Liam Elder-Connors

2. Sen. Leahy introduces bill allowing farmers to have voice in federal milk pricing

Sen. Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation that would allow dairy farmers to have a say in how their milk is priced by the federal government.

The Dairy Pricing Opportunity Act would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold hearings where dairy farmers could share how any changes to the pricing of fluid milk would impact them.

A change to the pricing formula several years ago, combined with federal government intervention in the cheese market during the pandemic, meant dairy farmers lost hundreds of millions of dollars in income.

In an effort to make up for this loss, the USDA paid about $350 million to dairy farmers over the summer.

- Elodie Reed

3. Vermont eligible to receive federal broadband money

Vermont will have access to a new pot of federal broadband funding.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect Program recently announced it was giving out $1.5 billion to improve broadband service in rural areas.

Clay Purvis with the Vermont Department of Public Service says because the company VTel received more than $100 million in federal aid for its broadband project about 10 years ago, Vermont was initially shut out from applying for the money.

Purvis says Sen. Patrick Leahy helped rewrite the program guidelines, which made Vermont eligible for new aid.

“Up until the pandemic this was the main broadband program of the federal government. And this is the first round of ReConnect funding, and it’s a substantial one, where Vermont’s back open,” he said.

Purvis says the money comes on top of the American Rescue Plan Act and infrastructure funding that’s going into Vermont’s drive to improve internet service across the state.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

4. In-person jury trials expected to resume in Orleans County

The Vermont Judiciary announced Thursday that in-person jury trials are set to resume in Orleans County next year.

The Newport courthouse has had limited operations since the start of the pandemic. It's one of several courthouses that hasn't been allowed to fully reopen due to poor ventilation.

The judiciary says the Newport courthouse will have its air systems updated soon. Jury selection will resume on Jan. 24 and trials will start later in the week.

Criminal trials for defendants who are held in prison will be prioritized, according to the judiciary.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. Dartmouth researchers add details to story of human evolution with help from orphaned black bears

For the first time, researchers have found evidence of two species of human relatives walking a few miles from one other on the same day more than 3 million years ago.

An international team of scientists visited a site in Tanzania, where decades ago, scientists found footprints from a single species of human ancestor, along with a set of strange, wide prints they had mistaken for a bear.

Jeremy DeSilva of Dartmouth College was part of the study, published this week in the journal Nature.

“What we were able to deduce from this study is that there was a second species that was living on that same landscape — and that second species also left these what were mysterious footprints for a long time,” DeSilva said. “And we were able to figure out that indeed they were from an upright, walking, extinct relative of humans.”

Researchers at Dartmouth figured this out by studying the footprints of young, orphaned black bears in New Hampshire.

They had the bears walk on two legs, luring them with maple syrup and applesauce.

- Lexi Krupp

6. Three Burlington district administrators put on leave amid allegations of improperly restraining a student

Allegations that a student was improperly restrained at Burlington's Flynn Elementary School has led to a state investigation of the incident and three district administrators put on paid leave.

District Superintendent Tom Flanagan alerted parents to the incident in a letter sent out Thursday.

The letter explains that Flynn Elementary assistant principal Herb Perez was placed on leave after a complaint alleging he inappropriately restrained a student.

That incident is being investigated by the state's Department for Children and Families, and the Agency of Education. The district is also doing its own investigation.

The superintendent says Flynn principal Lashawn Whitmore-Sells is also on paid leave over her connection to the alleged incident, and an expired professional license.

Seven Days reports the district's human resources director, Susan Anderson-Brown, has also been placed on leave for not informing the district of the principal's expired license.

- Matthew Smith

7. Grand Isle-North Hero drawbridge closes for construction next week until mid-May

The channel under the drawbridge connecting Grand Isle and North Hero will close next week and until mid-May as the Department of Transportation builds a new drawbridge over the water.

VTDigger reports the work is part of efforts to build a new bridge between the two island towns after the old drawbridge was demolished in 2019.

VTrans says bridge openings will resume May 15.

- Matthew Smith

8. Winooski School District health clinic looking to expand

A health clinic that serves students in the Winooski School District is looking to expand.

The school-based center opened in 2017. It provides basic health care services and COVID testing to students — all without leaving campus.

Earlier this year, Vermont’s two senators — Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders — requested more than $600,000 to expand the center.

School officials say the expansion would ensure students have continuous health care access, especially through this pandemic.

Emily Hecker is communications director for the school district.

"It's a model and a pilot program that we'd like to see in other school districts across the state,” Hecker said.

If the federal funding comes through, the center hopes to add on a dental suite with an on-site dentist.

This story was produced by Community News Service reporter Sofi Mendez. You can find more reporting from CNS at https://www.communitynews.net. 

 9. Massachusetts man charged with assaulting border agent in Vermont

A Massachusetts man is facing charges for assaulting a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the Vermont town of North Troy, federal prosecutors say.

A grand jury on Thursday returned a three-count federal indictment alleging that the 30-year-old defendant, of Springfield, Massachusetts, pointed a loaded handgun at an agent at the conclusion of a pursuit that began in Newport on Nov. 18.

The man is also charged with possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony. If convicted, he faces a minimum seven-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors say the defendant will be assigned an attorney before he appears in federal court.

The Border Patrol agents were helping state and local police pursue the defendant, who was wanted on state charges.

The man is currently being held without bail.

- Associated Press

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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