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News roundup: Lawmakers planning on in-person legislative session with COVID precautions

A graphic with a green background and the words Vermont news roundup with a comic of Vermont over the "r" in roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Thursday, Dec. 9.

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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. Health officials report COVID hospitalizations, positivity rate tick down Thursday

After record-high COVID hospitalizations earlier this week, the Health Department reported Thursday that both hospitalizations and Vermont's seven-day positivity rate have ticked down.

A total of 87 people are hospitalized today — lower than yesterday's record high in the low 90s, but still significantly higher than what the state has experienced through much of the pandemic.

The positivity rate dropped slightly to 4.8%.

The state reported a total of 467 new COVID infections, and one more virus-linked death.

- Matthew Smith

Vermont offering alternative to White House COVID testing plan

A new state plan aiming to make rapid COVID tests more accessible is taking a different approach than outlined by the White House.

Under an emergency rule, Vermonters with commercial insurance could get rapid tests for free by as early as Christmas.

Sara Teachout with BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont says the plan is for pharmacies to charge insurance companies directly.

“What we're trying to do is make it so that a Vermonter could walk into the pharmacy, the pharmacist could have the prescription for the at-home COVID test and then the person getting it wouldn't have to pay upfront and try and get reimbursed. Which is cumbersome, and we all know that,” she said.

That's different from recent guidance announced by the Biden administration — which calls on making over-the-counter rapid tests more available by allowing individuals to pay for the tests and then get reimbursed by their insurance company.

Teachout said many pharmacies are already overwhelmed. Many are concerned about having enough tests on the shelves to meet demand.

- Lexi Krupp

Legislature planning for in-person session with COVID precautions 

Legislative leaders say they are close to finalizing COVID-19 protocols that will allow the Statehouse to be open this winter.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski says she's hopeful that lawmakers will be able to meet in person. And for members who aren't comfortable doing that, she says all committee meetings and floor activities will be livestreamed.

Masks will be required for everyone in the building, new air filtration systems will be installed and committee rooms will have strict capacity limits.

Krowinksi says there will also be other key requirements for members and staff.

"This would require staff and members to be vaccinated or to participate in a testing schedule to ensure a high level of health and safety protections for all of us,” she said.

Krowinksi says she hopes to finalize these policies in the next few weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

Rutland Regional Medical Center limiting visitor access

Beginning Thursday, Rutland Regional Medical Center will once again limit visitors to protect against COVID.

Rutland Regional is the state's second largest hospital. It joins the University of Vermont Medical Center in tightening visitor access as COVID cases and hospitalizations surge across the state.

Under the new rules, most adults in the hospital will not be allowed to have visitors.

Patients giving birth and those receiving end-of-life care can have one visitor. Children are limited to two parents or guardians.

Masks are required at all times.

The hospital says it is also limiting food court access to staff, patients and their limited visitors.

- Brittany Patterson

Health commissioner says omicron variant could be in Vermont 

COVID hospitalizations hit an all-time high Wednesday as a post-Thanksgiving surge continues to drive case growth in Vermont.

Speaking to VPR's Vermont Edition on Wednesday, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the new omicron variant has not yet been detected in Vermont, but it's possible that it's already here.

“If it produces as mild of a disease as it's built to, in some parts of the world, we could easily have people here who already have had it, but don't know it. And it's just a matter of time before it's identified,” he said.

Currently, the omicron variant has been reported in 50 countries and 19 states.

- Marlon Hyde

Public Utility Commission continuing COVID rules into next year

The Public Utility Commission has extended its special COVID-19 public hearing rules into April of next year.

The three-member commission typically holds hearings to consider energy and telecommunications projects. But to prevent spread of the coronavirus, many of the hearing and site visit requirements have been relaxed for months.

The board this week announced that its guidance on filing confidential documents and notices of appeal -- that were originally changed more than a year-and-a-half ago -- will remain in effect into the spring.

The commission says it will continue to monitor the situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic to determine if further changes are appropriate.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

2. Lawmakers mulling changes to public school funding

A legislative task force has unveiled two options for overhauling Vermont’s education funding system.

One option would make it easier for low-income and rural districts to raise education revenue by changing the state’s school funding system.

Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, who co-chairs the task force, says the other option would provide cash payments to schools based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“And so we are going to send payments directly to those districts to account for the additional costs of those specific demographic categories,” she said.

Supporters of an overhaul say the existing funding system shortchanges schools in rural districts and schools that serve large numbers of low-income students.

Lawmakers will consider both proposals during the upcoming legislative session.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Vt. Climate Council members raising concerns about not enough public outreach

Some members of the Vermont Climate Council are raising concerns that outreach around the state's new Climate Action Plan hasn't sufficiently involved the public.

Adopted last week, the plan lays out how the state will reduce emissions to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act through the next decade.

It calls for sweeping changes to energy and land use policy.

At a council meeting Tuesday, State Climatologist Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux said future engagement efforts need to meet Vermonters where they are to build trust and create climate solutions that have public buy-in.

"It's probably going to be really, really hard to hear some of this stuff, but I think we need to actually allow folks to say 'I don't feel included,' or 'I don't feel part of this conversation,’” she said.

More public feedback will be collected in the new year as the Vermont Legislature hammers out the details.

- Abagael Giles

4. Vt. National Guard troops expected to arrive home Thursday

More than 100 Vermont National Guard troops who helped evacuate Americans and American allies from Afghanistan earlier this year were expected to arrive home Thursday.

The Guard members, who are part of the 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, were in the Middle East performing a variety of missions when they got the call to assist with security at the Kabul airport.

Battalion Commander Matthew Wignall is with the unit, also called Task Force Avalanche. He says he's excited to see his family.

“It's the best, it's absolutely the best. You've talked about it, you've obsessed about it. You've prepared about it. Your family has as well,” he said.

Wignall and other members of his unit were expected to land in Burlington around 1:15 p.m. Thursday.

- Connor Cyrus

5. State launching Vermont Housing Improvement Program to rehab underused units

The state of Vermont is working to rehabilitate underused housing units to help people who are exiting homelessness.

Gov. Phil Scott and the Department of Housing and Community Development announced Wednesday the launch of the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, with the help of $5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

The program is designed to bring housing units back online by investing in existing, but underutilized, structures.

It will provide grants of up to $30,000 per unit with a 20% funding match required to make units that don't comply with building codes once again livable.

- Associated Press

6. Two skiers caught in human-causes avalanches on Mount Washington

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center says two skiers were caught in human-caused avalanches and one skier was seriously injured.

A skier triggered an avalanche on Sunday near the the top of Left Gully, the first human-caused avalanche of the season.

The avalanche carried that skier about 800 feet, but they were not hurt.

That triggered a second avalanche, and the center said that hit another skier, who was carried more than 450 feet and hit several rocks.

That person was injured and was carried out in a five-hour rescue mission.

 - Associated Press

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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