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News roundup: New COVID infections, positivity rate remain consistent

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

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.

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1. COVID indicators remain generally static Tuesday

Vermont health officials reported four more people have died from COVID on Tuesday, as the state's key indicators for the spread of the virus remained mostly static.

Those four new deaths bring the state's toll to 436 Vermonters lost to the coronavirus.

There were 237 new infections statewide, a number nearly identical to what was reported Monday. Hospitalizations remained at 77.

Also unchanged is the state's positivity rate. An average of 4.6% of tests came back positive over the last week.

Forty-nine percent of Vermonters between the ages of 5 to 11 are now partially vaccinated. Statewide, that number is 84%.

- Matthew Smith

New Hampshire IDs first case of coronavirus omicron variant

New Hampshire health officials identified the first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the state on Monday.

The case was confirmed in an adult from Cheshire County who traveled out of state and was exposed to a person who was later identified with the variant.

New Hampshire Public Radio reports the resident was fully vaccinated, but had not yet had a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Granite State officials report the individual had a mild illness, and has since recovered during home isolation.

Those officials say no other exposures were identified.

- Matthew Smith

Eastern Quebec seeing COVID surge

Like much of the Northeast, COVID infections are on the rise in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

The region reported more than 560 new cases over the weekend, averaging nearly 170 cases a day over the last week.

The Sherbrooke Record reports 70 active outbreaks across the territory are currently being monitored by local health officials.

Outside the greater Montreal area, a full 40% of the province's COVID hospitalizations are now in the Township.

To date, 87% of Quebec residents 5 and older have now gotten one COVID vaccine dose.

- Matthew Smith

Omicron variant not found in Burlington wastewater tests

Recent testing of Burlington's wastewater system didn’t find any traces of the omicron mutation. Officials say that's a strong indicator that the COVID variant hadn't yet reached Vermont's most populous city.

The latest Dec. 6 wastewater surveillance tests show that delta continues to be the dominant strain in Burlington, according to a news release from the city. The next set of weekly results is expected by Thursday.

Chittenden County has one of the lowest COVID case rates in Vermont, though still at a transmission rate considered "high" by the CDC.

Burlington set up its wastewater surveillance system in August 2020 to provide faster data turnaround than clinical testing. It allows the city to more quickly take preventative actions to limit COVID spread, according to the news release.

- Kevin Trevellyan

2. Lawsuit alleges youth held at Vt. juvenile detention center were subjected to excessive force, unlawful restraints

Several children held at Vermont's former juvenile detention center are suing the state.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, alleges youth at Woodside were subjected to excessive force and unlawful restraints.

And it's not the first time the now-shuttered facility has faced legal challenges.

Regulatory reports obtained by VPR in 2019 and a lawsuit filed that year by the Defender General's office described incidents where staff used restraint techniques that violated a regulation prohibiting "cruel or severe" practices.

And last year, Disability Rights Vermont reached a settlement with the Department for Children and Families, the agency that ran Woodside, after alleging kids were held in dangerous conditions.

The settlement required DCF to monitor interventions, including restraints and isolation, for 18 months. The Scott administration decided to close the facility in Nov. 2019.

DCF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

- Liam Elder-Connors

3. Lawmakers likely to consider cut in statewide property tax rate

It's likely that lawmakers will be considering a sizeable cut in the statewide property tax rate when they meet in January.

That's because one of the education fund's key revenue sources, the state sales tax, is running far ahead of projections.

House Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel says the fund is projected to have a $90 million surplus for two major reasons.

First, the state is directly collecting the sales tax from online purchases, and second, because consumers are spending a lot of their federal COVID stimulus money.

"That money has made a big difference. And with the change to online sales that happened along with the pandemic, people had more money in their pockets. And that has really beefed up our sales tax revenue,” Ancel said.

Ancel says some lawmakers might want to consider using part of the surplus to make additional investments in education.

- Bob Kinzel

4. Red Cross urging people to donate blood amid nationwide shortage

The Red Cross is urging people to give blood, saying the pandemic has created a historic shortage nationwide.

Steve Costello is one of the organizers of Rutland County’s long-running blood drive, the Gift Of Life Marathon.

“Right now the Red Cross blood supply is at the lowest it's been in 10 years,” Costello said. “And there's less than a half a day’s supply. So blood that’s collected today is needed almost immediately.”

This year's drive began last week in Fair Haven and will continue at venues in Rutland this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Costello says unlike in past years where walk-ins were encouraged, donations are by appointment only this year due to the pandemic.

Masks are required and distancing will be enforced.

He says he's excited by how many have already signed up and is optimistic they’ll reach their goal of collecting 475 pints.

To find a blood drive near you, go to redcrossblood.org.

- Nina Keck

5. State makes special purchase of fiber optic cable to extend broadband into rural areas

The state of Vermont says it’s made a special purchase of more than 2,000 miles of high-speed fiber optic cable.

Robert Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, says the purchase means construction extending high-speed broadband into the most rural parts of the state can begin this spring.

"This is enough fiber to allow for the construction for next year and part of 2023,” Fish said.

Fish says there’s a shortage of fiber across the country as communities start their COVID relief-funded broadband projects.

The bulk purchase will also save the state almost $2 million, as prices are expected to increase next year.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

6. State Senate president hoping to bring civility to U.S. House

Vermont Senate President Becca Balint says she's running for Vermont's sole U.S. House seat to help end the toxic political atmosphere in Congress.

Balint says developing an agenda to help working families is her top priority. And she says the political debate in Washington needs to change in order to achieve these goals.

"It's about this combination of courage and kindness, because we are at a dark time right now,” she said. “We are so divided and we have important work that we need to do. And if we stay in a place of demonizing each other we're not going to be able to come together to do the things that Vermonters need us to do."

Balint, who is openly gay, is the first woman to ever serve as president of the state Senate.

Lt. Governor Molly Gray has also announced her candidacy for the U.S. House. Other candidates could also emerge.

- Bob Kinzel

7. Horizon Organic offers temporary contract extension to dairy farmers

An organic milk company exiting the region has offered farmers a six-month extension before ending their contracts. 

Back in August, Horizon Organic notified 89 Northeast organic dairy farms that it would end their milk contracts due to transportation and manufacturing challenges. At that time, Danone North America, Horizon’s parent company, said it could maintain contracts with farms for up to one year.

On Monday, Danone shared in an email with VPR that it would offer an additional six-month extension given “the extraordinary conditions of the Northeast region.” That includes a tight market that leaves few places for farmers to sell their milk.

In addition to the extension, Danone is providing extra payments to farmers for the last six months of their contracts. The company also said it is exploring quote “co-investment solutions” in the region. 

- Elodie Reed

8. Former Dartmouth student indicted for allegedly shooting BB gun at menorah on campus

A former Dartmouth College student has been indicted by a grand jury for allegedly shooting out most of the lights on a menorah at the college with a BB gun last year.

The 20-year-old former student, originally from New York, has been charged with criminal mischief.

The Valley News reports the student is accused of damaging seven of the nine lights on a menorah on the Dartmouth Green in December of last year.

His lawyer had no comment.

At the time, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon called the menorah vandalism an "appalling act of anti-Semitism" perpetuated during Hanukkah.

But authorities later said they did not have enough evidence for a hate crime charge.

- Associated Press

9. Northern New England gas prices continue to fall

Gas prices fell in northern New England again over the past week.

Prices in Maine and New Hampshire fell by about 1.5 cents, according to GasBuddy, which surveys hundreds of fueling stations.

Prices in Vermont dropped 2.5 cents, averaging $3.37 per gallon across the state.

Drive Electric Vermont notes the cost to fully recharge most electric cars, based on the average price of electricity in the state, is about $10 to $15 dollars.

- Associated Press

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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