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Vermont News Updates For Wednesday, June 24

Cardboard boxes with labels named chik n zips
Elodie Reed
The pre-cooked chicken produced by a Wisconsin company, which is among the free food handed out at events coordinated by the Abbey Group, the Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont National Guard. They're funded by the federal government.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, missing swimmers and more for Wednesday, June 24.

Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 20 minutes with The Frequency every weekday morning. How about an email newsletter? Add our daily email briefing to your morning routine.

The latest coronavirus data:


20 new COVID-19 cases

The Vermont Department of Health reported 20 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The positive tests came back with 512 negative ones.

Half of the new cases are in Rutland County, and eight are in Chittenden County. Grand Isle and Windham County have a single new case each.

There are four people hospitalized with the coronavirus in Vermont, and 930 are reported to have recovered.

The state has tested 59,860 people to date, and a total of 56 people have died from the disease. There have been no new deaths in over a week.

- Amy Kolb Noyes and Elodie Reed

Sen. Leahy calls on Senate colleagues to pass criminal justice reform bill

Sen. Patrick Leahy is calling on his Senate colleagues to pass a bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill.

The Democrats have blocked consideration of a GOP bill that offers financial incentives to encourage police departments to change behavior.

Leahy said the bill would "do little more than place a handful of bandaids on deep generations of old wounds."

The Democratic approach prohibits the use of specific activities, including choke holds.

Leahy said the Senate should vote on dozens of amendments offered by both parties in an effort to reach a compromise.

"In something this important, with race relations, major changes in law enforcement, it's not going to be done as an all-Democratic bill, or an all-Republican bill," Leahy said. "It's going to be a bi-partisan American bill."

Because of the current stalemate, Senate leaders say it's doubtful that any votes will be held before the Fourth of July recess.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Bob Kinzel

Gov. Scott says he's working with lawmakers on Act 250 legislation

Gov. Phil Scott said he's trying to work with lawmakers to revise legislation that would update Act 250, that state's main development review law.

The bill exempts projects in designated downtowns from Act 250 review. It would add additional review for road construction in forested areas. The administration opposes the forest section, but Scott said he's seeking a compromise.

"We have concerns about many parts of the bill and there are other parts we think would be tremendously helpful," he said. "So we've been, again, trying to pursue some of the helpful parts, figure out what we can agree to, be united on, and try to get something passed."

The bill cleared the House earlier this year but has stalled a number of times in the Senate. The Senate Natural Resources Committee is working on the legislation this week.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Sen. Leahy says he won't support 'qualified immunity' for police officers

Sen. Patrick Leahy said he won't support a new Republican criminal justice reform bill unless the proposal limits the use of so called "qualified immunity" for most police officers.

Leahy said the existing immunity provision makes it difficult to bring civil charges in cases of alleged misconduct and to hold police officers accountable.

"I think that we see on that that there hsa been so much misuse of it," Leahy said. "Things happen that you and I would both look at and say, 'This was wrong.' And yet, they say, 'Well, we've got this immunity.' And the courts say, 'Our hands are tied!'"

Leahy is urging Senate Republicans to hold a vote on an amendment he has introduced that would limit immunity.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Bob Kinzel

Sen. Leahy supports a second federal economic stimulus package

Sen. Patrick Leahy said he supports passage of a second major economic stimulus bill to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leahy said he'd like to see the Senate pass a plan, adopted by the House last month, that allocates just over $3 trillion to individual states and municipalities.

It also extends unemployment benefits and provides $1,200 special stimulus checks to most people.

"The COVID is not going to go away. We've seen in some of the places that opened too soon," Leahy said. "Unlike Vermont, [in] states [that] open[ed] too soon in the last few days there's been a huge spike in it, so that is going to continue to be there."

Leahy said he also wants the bill to include new funds to build broadband infrastructure in many states.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Bob Kinzel

Sen. Leahy says Biden should strongly consider naming a woman of color as his running mate

Sen. Patrick Leahy said persumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden should strongly consider naming a woman of color his vice presidential running mate.

Leahy said either California Senator and former presidential candidate Kamala Harris or Florida Representative and former Ohio police chief Val Demings would be excellent choices.

Leahy said choosing a woman of color would highlight the differences between the Democratic ticket and what he calls "racist statements" that have recently come out of the White House.

"I think the most important thing is it be the best person he can pick," Leahy said. "To be a person of color, especially at this time, would send the message that we need."

Biden is expected to make his choice known in about a month.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Bob Kinzel

Bennington reaches settlement in lawsuit over racial profiling

The town of Bennington has reached a settlement in a lawsuit that alleged systemic racial profiling by the town's police department.

Jay Diaz with ACLU-Vermont said the settlement is just one step the town needs to take to protect people of color in southwestern Vermont.

"We''re hopeful that this settlement will continue to move the needle and bend the curve toward racial justice in Bennington," Diaz said.

In July 2013, Bennington police stopped a taxi that was carrying Shamel Alexander. Alexander is African American.

Alexander was arrested for a drug offense, but the conviction was overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court, which said the Bennington Police Department violated his constitutional rights.

As part of the settlement announced this week, Bennington agreed to a $30,000 cash payment.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

More from VPR: Activism, Reform In A Country Build On Racism: A Conversation With Vt. Racial Justice Leaders

Health commissioner says Vermont's growth rate has slowed, despite outbreaks

Vermont's top health official said the state has effectively slowed the growth of new COVID-19 cases, despite scattered outbreaks in Rutland, Windham and Chittenden counties.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said 12 people associated with a business in Fair Haven have tested positive, and that testing will soon be available in that community. He said the Chittenden County cluster has reached 114 cases, but the outbreak has slowed.

"The peak was in early June, and even with additional cases occurring sporadically through this later part of June, we are clearly on a downward and stable slope," Levine said.

Levine said the outbreak in Windham County is confined to one family of under 10 people. He urged Vermonters not to let their guard down as the state makes headway against the coronavirus.

He said it's still important to maintain the proper physical difference, wash hands frequently and to wear masks in public areas.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Two UVM students test positive for COVID-19, as an unknown number return to Burlington

Only two returning University of Vermont students have tested positive for COVID-19, but it's unclear how many have arrived in Burlington.

Normally, many students return this month, as leases for off-campus housing typically start at the beginning of June. That's raised concerns that the influx could bring more COVID-19 cases.

UVM officials were prepared to test up to 2,000 students. But about three weeks into June, only 371 have been tested.

UVM Vice Provost for Student Affairs Annie Stevens said students might be waiting longer before moving back to Burlington, so she's not concerned about low testing numbers.

"I look at it that every test counts and every student that helps us understand where the pandemic or the virus may be and may not be is helpful information," Stevens said.

A separate Burlington-run program to support quarantined students has also had lower than expected participation.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Three Vermont inmates at separate facilities have COVID-19

Three Vermont inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at three separate prison facilities over the last two weeks.

One COVID-positive inmate is at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility, one at Chittenden Regional and one at Northwest State. The three cases follow weeks of heavy testing with no new positive cases.

Sec. of Human Services Mike Smith said at least two of the three new positive cases were new inmates coming from out-of-state.  

"We have discovered that we really need to change our intake method," Smith said. "We're putting too many facilities at risk."

Smith said his agency is looking to consolidate new inmates at one or two facilities. As is, all six Vermont prisons quarantine their new inmates separately. Smith also announced the state will continue testing all inmates and staff at all Vermont prisons at a rate of one facility per week.

- Emily Corwin

National Life Group joins Darn Tough in cutting jobs

Gov. Phil Scott said recent job cuts at two prominent Vermont companies show that the economic impact of the COVID crisis is becoming more severe.

Montpelier-based National Life Group has cut 53 Vermont jobs out of almost 100 eliminated company-wide. And sock maker Darn Tough Vermont has laid off nearly 50 of its approximately 330 employees.

Scott said Wednesday that the layoffs show the need for a strong state response to help businesses.

"And I think this is indication, whether it's National Life, or Darn Tough Socks, or the many, many restaurants, hospitality sector, lodgings and so forth, who are going to feel the brunt of this," Scott said. "That's why the economic package that was first initiated and provided to the Legislature is so, so needed."

Scott proposed an economic relief package that included $200 million in loans and grants for businesses. The Legislature has whittled down that request.

- John Dillon

More from VPR: Scott, Lawmakers Tussle Over COVID Relief For Vermont Businesses

Vermont named top maple syrup producing state for 39th year

While the whole world seemed to change this spring, at least one thing remained the same.

For the 93rd season in a row, Vermont has been named the top maple syrup producing state in the country.

The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association said, between February and April, as many other businesses were shuttered, Vermont producers made over 2.2 million gallons of syrup.

That's more than half of the maple syrup made in the United States this year.

The Association reported that the state's trees hosted a record 6.5 million taps this spring, gathering more sap than ever.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

More from VPR: COVID-19 Has Put A Lot On Hold, But Sap Is Flowing

Early career healthcare workers reflect on entering the field during a pandemic

For young healthcare workers, their new careers are defined by a pandemic that wasn't part of their schooling.

Scott Hill is a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She graduated from the University of Vermont two years ago.

The hospital floor where she works was converted to treat coronavirus patients this spring.

Hill said it was challenging, particularly since there's still so much uknown about COVID-19.

"Some people are just barely hit by it," Hill said. "Like, we have people in their late nineties who tested positive for COVID-19 and have no symptoms at all. And then, we'll have people who are in their mid-to-late forties who are short of breath, just trying to sit up in bed."

Hill said her floor has been converted back to its normal functions as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline in Vermont.

Jess O'Toole, a licensed nursing assitsant at the University of Vermont Medical Center, had worked at the hospital for a little over six months when the virus hit.

O'Toole said her unit became a place for people to wait for their COVID-19 test results. She said one of the difficult things was having to limit contact with patients.

"I can't imagine... what it must be like to be in this room and know that people are actively unable to be there as much as they normally are, and are actively trying not to go in as much, or cluster care," O'Toole said. "Even though it's necessary, that just has to be really, really sad."

O'Toole said the experience helped her realize she's on the right career path. Last month, she started the nursing program at UVM.

Read the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Two missing swimmers in Lake Champlain

A missing swimmer is presumed dead in Lake Champlain, near Alburgh Dunes State Park in Alburgh, according to Vermont State Police.

The Grand Isle County Sheriff's Department received an emergency call at 6:19 p.m. on Tuesday that an adult man had dived into the water from a boat on the lake and did not resurface despite the efforts of several other people on the vessel to rescue him.

Multiple agencies were expected to resume the search Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a search is underway for a different person who went missing on Lake Champlain at Red Rocks Park yesterday.

WCAX reports that South Burlington Fire Chief Terry Francis says a call came in around 5:45 p.m. that six people were in a boat and somehow ended up in the water. One is still missing.

- Sam Gale Rosen

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