News roundup: Health officials report seven more people have died from COVID
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Jan. 21.
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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron 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. Vt. Health Dept. reports seven more COVID deaths since Wednesday
State officials reported 1,766 new cases of COVID-19 Friday.
Hospitalizations ticked down to 108 people, including 27 in the ICU.
The state reports seven more people have died from the virus since Wednesday. Officials didn't update that figure Thursday due to server issues.
The state says its COVID dashboard will be updated later in the day going forward because high case counts are driving longer data processing times.
- Kevin Trevellyan
State lawmakers abandon mask mandate legislation
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have criticized Gov. Phil Scott’s refusal to issue a statewide mask mandate.
But they’ve abandoned legislation that would have created an indoor masking requirement.
Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons says a statewide masking requirement for indoor public spaces is one of the best tools Vermont could use to mitigate the spread of the omicron variant.
But she says the governor has assured Senate leaders that he’d veto masking legislation.
And she says the Health and Welfare Committee that she chairs isn’t going to waste time on a lost cause.
“There’s just not a path forward. And at this stage of our session, we really don’t have time to use up in that process,” Lyons said.
Senate President Becca Balint told VTDigger this week that the Legislature doesn’t have the votes to override a Scott veto on the masking bill.
Scott has said he doesn’t think a mask mandate will increase mask usage.
- Peter Hirschfeld
State shipped more than 100,000 antigen test kits to child care centers last week
The state shipped more than 100,000 antigen test kits to child care centers last week.
Interim Deputy Human Services Secretary Todd Daloz told lawmakers on Thursday that another 40,000 tests are headed to child care providers this week.
Daloz said the test kits are part of a new program called “Tests For Tots.”
“Which is essentially a test-to-stay program for child care centers, focused on the 2- to 5-year-old set,” he said.
Daloz said administration officials are collecting data on how many antigen kits schools and child care centers will need to administer the testing programs during the omicron wave.
He said the administration expects to secure more shipments of antigen tests in the coming weeks.
- Peter Hirschfeld
2. Gov. Scott proposes statewide climate office
Gov. Phil Scott's new budget proposal recommends funding what would be Vermont's first-ever statewide office of climate.
If advanced by the Legislature, it would live within the Agency of Natural Resources. As proposed, the office would have a staff of eight, including the current Global Warming Solutions Act staff, plus four new positions.
The team would be responsible for coordinating and reporting on Vermont's progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act.
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, co-chair of the Legislature's Climate Caucus, says the coalition supports a climate office.
Copeland Hanzas would have liked to see a cabinet-level position dedicated to climate, but, she says:
"The Agency of Natural Resources is really where the rubber hits the road.”
The governor is proposing a $1.1 million budget for the new office. Copeland Hanzas says the Legislature will need to take a close look at what funding and staffing is needed.
- Abagael Giles
Statehouse Dems signaling early concerns about governor’s relocation incentives
Democratic leaders in the Legislature are signaling early concerns about Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal to lure more out-of-state workers to Vermont.
Scott wants to spend $6 million next year to offset relocation costs for new arrivals. He’s asking for another $8.4 million to target advertising at workers who live outside the state.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski says that’s money that won’t be spent on Vermonters who already live here.
“What I have heard from people across all counties is that they want us to be investing in them, and so I need to hear some more information to be convinced that is the right decision to make right now,” Krowiniski said.
Scott says his proposal would benefit existing Vermonters by growing the tax base and stimulating local economies.
- Peter Hirschfeld
3. Emergency warming shelters, crisis heating assistance available as temperatures plummet
Temperatures are expected to plummet again this weekend. And groups that work with impoverished Vermonters say there are resources available like emergency warming shelters and crisis heating assistance.
Sue Minter heads Capstone Community Action, which serves people in: Washington, Lamoille and Orange counties.
"We know many many Vermonters are having to choose between feeding their family and heating their homes,” Minter said. “And we want them to know that there is help available for many who are finding themselves in economic crisis right now, heating their homes through the cold winter.”
She says crisis heat and furnace repair funds are available across Vermont.
Rutland will also open an extreme cold weather shelter that’s pet-friendly on Friday and Saturday night.
To find out where to get help, Minter says people can call 211 or go to VermontCAP.org.
- Nina Keck
4. State lawmaker trying to ease path for small growers in legal cannabis market
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears has introduced legislation that he believes could have a major impact on the development of the state's legal cannabis marketplace, which is set to open in October.
Under Sears' bill, small growers would be classified as "farming" operations which would exempt them from Act 250 review and most local zoning ordinances.
Recently, he testified in front of the Senate Agriculture committee.
"It's a real attempt to try to bring in some of those folks who have been growing small plots of marijuana for years, and selling them on the illegal market. And we're hopeful that it will get passed and move us in the right direction,” Sears said.
The committee is expected to vote on this bill in the next week or two.
- Bob Kinzel
Bill would exempt Abenaki tribes from property taxes
Two dozen lawmakers are sponsoring legislation in the Vermont House that would exempt Vermont's four state-recognized Abenaki tribes from paying property taxes.
Abenaki chiefs say the policy would provide major financial relief to the tribes and allow them to further invest in services for their members, VTDigger reports.
The bill would apply to real and personal property owned by a tribe or related nonprofit. That's as long as the property is used for tribal purposes, and isn’t leased or rented for profit.
The policy would apply to four parcels in Vermont totaling 150 acres.
- Kevin Trevellyan
Forty-two Vt. lawmakers sign onto bill decriminalizing possession of all drugs
Forty-two lawmakers in the Vermont House of Representatives have signed on to legislation that would decriminalize the possession of all illegal drugs.
Supporters of the proposal want to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Research conducted last year found that Black Vermonters are more likely to be charged with drug crimes than white residents.
And they’re also subjected to stiffer prison sentences by the court system.
Burlington Rep. Selene Colburn says outside experts have told lawmakers that reforming drug laws is one way to address the problem.
“The data shows again and again that when people reduce or eliminate drug penalties, it makes a significant difference in reducing racial disparities in the justice system,” Colburn said.
The bill would decriminalize possession of personal-use amounts of opioids, cocaine and other drugs.
Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling says he hasn’t reviewed the proposal.
- Peter Hirschfeld
5. Welch supports trimming Build Back Better bill
Congressman Peter Welch says he supports efforts to trim President Biden's Build Back Better bill to ensure its passage in the U.S. Senate.
The legislation includes a restoration of child tax credits, climate change initiatives and allows Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies.
But West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin says the legislation is too expensive.
Welch says it's critical to pass the elements of the bill that do have Manchin's support.
"So if what we're doing is less than what we want but it's what we need to do – I'm all for it. We've got to make progress where we can, and we've got to be realistic,” he said.
Welch says House Democratic leaders are working on a compromise package to present to the Senate in coming days.
- Bob Kinzel
6. Broadband board ready to distribute federal dollars
A statewide panel established to help build out Vermont’s broadband network says it's ready to give out more than $100 million.
The Vermont Community Broadband Board says the grant program is open to groups in the state that are trying to extend high-speed Internet service to underserved areas.
The money is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act. It can be used for materials, equipment or labor for projects that are being scheduled for the spring and summer.
The broadband board also announced a $16 million matching grant program to leverage investments made at the town level to improve broadband service.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
7. GlobalFoundries hopes to reduce carbon emissions by heating plant with “green hydrogen”
Computer chip maker GlobalFoundries hopes to reduce its carbon emissions in Vermont by heating its Essex Junction plant with so-called "green hydrogen."
The company is working with Vermont Gas and UVM to create a system that would extract hydrogen from water. The organizations say that system will be powered by renewable energy.
Neal Lunderville is the CEO of Vermont Gas:
"Through a process of electrolysis, the hydrogen is separated from the oxygen using electricity,” Lunderville said. “The hydrogen is then blended into the natural gas line and can be burned directly in a boiler or a furnace."
The announcement comes as GlobalFoundries is applying to become its own electric utility. Critics argue that's a way for the company to get out of required carbon emissions cuts. GlobalFoundries disputes that, and says it's committed to reducing its emissions.
- Henry Epp
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.