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Vermont Reaches A 'Grim Milestone' With 100 Coronavirus Deaths

Signs about mask wearing hang in display window for Christmas decorations
Abagael Giles
Rail City Salon in St. Albans offered customers a reminder about public health guidance in their holidays display.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, a two-year investigation into allegations of murder at a shuttered Burlington children's home and more for Tuesday, Dec. 15.Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 15 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:


1. Vermont sees 66 new COVID-19 cases, four deaths

Vermont health officials reported 66 new COVID-19 cases and four new virus-related deaths Tuesday.

The state reached a grim milestone Tuesday. The latest coronavirus fatalities now mean 100 people have died in Vermont from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The United States has now seen more than 300,000 coronavirus fatalities since the pandemic began this spring.

Gov. Phil Scott, at a press conference Tuesday, offered condolences to the families who had lost relatives to the virus.

"And let this be a reminder, as to why we must continue our work to keep each other safe," he said.

The record number of fatalities come as Vermont begins an effort to inoculate health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities against COVID-19.

Today's new cases were found mostly in Chittenden County, with 32 new cases.

There are now 20 people hospitalized with the disease in the state, including four people in intensive care.

- Matthew Smith and Liam Elder-Connors

So far, Vt. appears to have avoided Thanksgiving surge

There's some good news concerning the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont.

State officials were expecting the number of positive cases would increase dramatically after the Thanksgiving holiday, but that hasn't happened.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Mike Pieciak tracks COVID trends for the Scott Administration.

He said many Vermonters appear to have taken the governor's advice and limited their social gatherings over Thanksgiving.

"During the seven-to-19 days following Thanksgiving, a period where we would expect cases to show up, our seven-day growth rate was very mild, increasing a little over 8%, while our positivity rate declined over the same period," Pieciak said.

It's likely that the administration will ask Vermonters to keep gathering restrictions in place through New Year's Eve.

- Bob Kinzel

A record number of Vermonters have already gotten flu shots

While the first Vermonters are getting ready to get their COVID-19 vaccinations, a record number of people have already gotten their flu shots.

Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak said the state has set some ambitious goals for flu vaccinations this winter.

Last year, roughly 270,000 Vermonters got a flu shot.

Pieciak said the goal has been raised this year to 320,000 people because of additional concerns about the coronavirus.

He said the state has achieved more than 75% of its overall goal for flu vaccinations this year.

"The flu vaccine remains ready for anyone who wants one and again, by getting a shot, you're not only protecting yourself, but you're protecting your community and those who are more vulnerable by preventing the flu from further circulating within our state," Pieciak said.

He said it's not too late for a flu vaccine to be effective.

- Bob Kinzel

Gov. Scott says he's open to getting the COVID-19 vaccine on TV

Three former U.S. presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- have all said they'd be willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine on TV to boost public confidence in the vaccine.

Gov. Phil Scott said he's open to doing the same, but he doesn't want to take doses away from the health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities who have priority.

"I'd be more than willing to do it, but again, I just want to make sure everyone understands that I don't want to take away from someone else," Scott said. "I'm not in one of those categories at this point, and I'll wait my turn. I don't want to jump in line for the sake of saving myself."

Vermont received its first shipment of the vaccine made by Pfizer Monday. The Unversity of Vermont Medical Center administered the first shot Tuesday, starting with a nurse in its emergency department.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Source of Rutland COVID outbreak remains unclear

Just how the coronavirus was able to enter a Rutland-area care and rehab center and ultimately infect 65 people may never be known.

The Rutland Heraldreports the virus first broke out at Rutland Health Care and Rehabilitation a month ago. In all, 43 residents and 22 staff were infected and seven residents died.

Dr. Richard Feifer, chief medical officer for Genesis Healthcare, which operates the facility, said they enforced stringent restrictions following state and federal COVID-19 guidelines.

In am emailed statement, he told the paper: “We may never really know who or what started the outbreak" in Rutland.

Monica Hutt, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, said risks to long-term care facilities tend to come from visitors coming from the community. Hutt said she had no reason to think COVID-19 was brought into the Rutland facility by staff.

- Matthew Smith

2. UVM Medical Center administers first vaccinations in Vermont

Vermont received its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations Monday, and the first vaccine in the state was administered Tuesday afternoon at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

An emergency department nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center was the first person to get the shot.

The state expects to get about 5,800 doses this week for frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said now the first wave of people are getting vaccinated, the state will begin the process of determining who goes next.

"They will almost certainly involve some combination of people over 65, people under 65 with chronic or immune compromising positions, and frontline workers," he said.

Levine said it will likely be several months before all Vermonters can get vaccinated, and in the meantime, people should continue to follow public health guidelines like hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing.

Jessica Abolezz, the pharmacy manager at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans, has been coordinating and preparing the vaccine deliveries there. She told Vermont Edition they were expecting the first 145 doses of the vaccine Tuesday.

"In general, it sounds like people are excited to have it here on site, excited to be able to get the vaccine," Abolezz said. "It's heartwarming to see everybody who's come together to make this a possibility."

Abolezz said determining who on staff gets the vaccine first is dependent on availability and flexibility in work schedules, and who is available in three weeks to get their second dose.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Emily Aiken and Liam Elder-Connors

Long-term care facilities will soon begin inoculations

Long-term care facilities in Vermont will soon be able to inoculate their residents against the coronavirus.

The federal government contracted with pharmacy chains to distribute the vaccine in the facilities. Vermont health officials say those pharmacies are expected to get Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine later this week.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday that residents in long-term care facilities will be able to get shots starting Dec. 21.

"[That makes] Vermont one of the earliest states to become operational within the federal government-pharmacy partnership program," Levine said.

Most of Vermont's 100 COVID-19 fatalities are connected to outbreaks at elder care facilities. The state is currently trying to contain outbreaks at nine facilities.

- Liam Elder-Connors

3. Vt. Lawmakers sign off on additional coronavirus aid to local businesses

A program that pays restaurants to prepare meals for needy Vermonters is getting more funding from the Legislature.

Lawmakers on Tuesday approved an additional $400,000 for an initiative called Everyone Eats.

Gov. Phil Scott's Finance Commissioner, Adam Greshin, urged lawmakers to support the appropriation.

"You know, this is a program that feeds hungry Vermonters affected by the pandemic in one way or another," Greshin said. "And it also provides sustenance to the restaurants that are providing the food."

The new funding will allow the program to continue through the end of the year.

But the longer-term future of Everyone Eats likely hinges on passage of another coronavirus relief bill by Congress.

Legislature authorizes $11.5 million in business grants

Lawmakers Tuesday signed off on Gov. Phil Scott's request for more financial relief for Vermont businesses.

The legislative approval clears the way for another $11.5 million in grants to businesses whose revenues have been affected by the pandemic.

Calais Rep. Janet Ancel is a member of the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee.

"The folks that I'm most concerned about, other than the hospitality people that we tried very hard to take care of, are basically the small retailers; the downtown stores that we know are really struggling," Ancel said.

The money allocated Tuesday comes from Vermont's share of a federal coronavirus relief package passed by Congress earlier this year.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. Attorney general's review of shuttered orphanage yields no criminal charges

A two-year investigation into allegations of murder at the shuttered St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage in Burlington did not find enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

State and local law enforcement officials formed a task force to investigate St. Joseph’s, which closed in 1974, after a 2018 story by Buzzfeeddetailed decades of abuse at the orphanage. It included claims that children were killed by nuns running the facility.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says while there wasn’t enough evidence to bring murder charges, it’s clear that abuse occurred — but he said the decades-old cases lack evidence, since they weren’t investigated.

“Moreover, given the lapse of time, these cases are barred by the statute of limitations,” Donavan said.

In a statement, The Sisters of Providence, the order of nuns who ran the orphanage, said they did not have “any knowledge of the alleged acts” detailed in the report.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. Resources are available for those juggling SUD and COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Vermont, so do opioid deaths and overdoses.

State officials have often repeated the motto "never use alone," which can be hard since many Vermonters are still being asked to isolate from friends and family.

Julea Larsen, supervisor of the opioid response team at the non-profit Turning Point Center of Bennington, toldVermont Editionthe isolation brought on from the pandemic is proving to be a significant challenge for those trying to use safely.

“Using harm reduction methods are safer than using nothing at all,” Larsen said. “We know how to protect ourselves from COVID; we can do that safely and effectively. And Narcan can always be accessed through the Turning Point Center.”

You can find more information on harm reduction methods and recovery resources by calling 2-1-1.

Listen to the full conversation, here.

- Emily Aiken

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