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Vermont Reports 5 New Deaths, 73 New COVID-19 Cases

Woman wearing a medical mask in a gray shirt receives a shot
Northwestern Medical Center, Courtesy
Heather Tremblay, who works as a nurse in the emergency department at Northwestern Medical Center, receives the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in St. Albans on Wednesday. Courtney Leduc, RN, administered the vaccine.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Wednesday, Dec. 16.

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The latest coronavirus data:


1. Vermont sees 73 new COVID-19 cases, 5 new deaths

The Vermont Department of Health Wednesday reported that five more Vermonters have died after contracting COVID-19. That news comes after the state hit 100 deaths on Tuesday.

Of the 73 new COVID cases reported Wednesday, 38 were in Chittenden County. Vermont’s most populous county has seen 565 new cases in the last two weeks alone.

During that time, Franklin and Washington counties each saw 143 new cases.

Though new cases have trended slightly down in the last few days, 30 people are currently hospitalized in Vermont. Six people are in ICUs.

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

105 people have died in Vermont.

- Abagael Giles

First Vermonters are inoculated against COVID-19

The first Vermonters were inoculated against the coronavirus Tuesday, marking the beginning of a statewide effort to distribute thousands of doses of the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers and  residents of long-term care facilities.

Just after 2 p.m. on Tuesday Cindy Wamsganz rolled up the sleeve of her blue scrubs. After a quick jab of a needle, Wamsgantz, an emergency department nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center, became the first person in Vermont to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

John Brumsted president and CEO of the UVM Health Network said it marks the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Because of the pain and suffering and disruption that COVID has created, the message today is one of hope and looking forward," Brumsted said.

Health officials say it will be months before there’s enough vaccine for everyone. For now they’re urging everyone to keep following public health measures like mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

- Liam Elder-Connors

18 of 23 Vermont Police Academy recruits test positive

Eighteen of 23 recruits at the Vermont Police Academy have tested positive for COVID-19.

Interim academy director William Sheets said one academy staffer also tested positive last week.

The Rutland Heraldreports the academy shut down more than a week ago after the first two positive cases were identified. Additional testing revealed more infections among recruits and staff.

The academy remains closed. Recruits are completing the final weeks of classes through remote learning.

Graduation and final in-person training have been delayed to January.

- Matthew Smith

Quebec to enact new closures starting Christmas Day

Quebec will re-shutter most businesses after Christmas and extend school breaks to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in the province, and a growing strain on its hospitals.

More than 950 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Quebec.

The closures will start Dec. 25 and last through Jan. 11.

The order shuts down all non-essential businesses, including many retail shops. Big box stores will be prohibited from selling non-essential items. Grocery stores, pet supply stores and hardware stores will remain open.

- Matthew Smith

2. ACLU calls on Vt. Supreme Court to not permit the use of evidence seized by border patrol agents in warrantless searches

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont told the state’s highest court Tuesday that local prosecutors should not be allowed to use evidence seized by U-S Border Patrol agents during a warrantless search.

In August 2018, a Richford couple refused to consent to a search of their car after being pulled over by the Border Patrol. The agent searched the car anyway, and found marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms. A local prosecutor filed charges.

ACLU of Vermont staff attorney Jay Diaz told the Vermont Supreme Court, while the Border Patrols’ actions aren’t prohibited under federal law, Vermont’s constitution requires law enforcement get a search warrant.

"We’re asking this court to apply existing law in this situation for a search that happened in Vermont," Diaz said. "The fruits of that search are being used by a Vermont prosecutor in a Vermont court."

Vermont’s top law enforcement officer — Attorney General TJ Donovan — said he agrees with the ACLU and that the Vermont Constitution requires law enforcement to get a warrant before searching a car.

"I want to be clear, Border Patrol was following their rules, their procedures, their protocol," Donovan said. "They didn’t do anything wrong under their rules. We’re just saying, if this was a Vermont law enforcement official …  they would have to get a warrant and if it’s going to go into Vermont court, it shouldn’t matter who makes the stop or who makes the arrest."

An attorney with the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs argued the search was legal and prosecutors should be allowed to use that evidence.

- Liam Elder-Connors

3. New president of Rutland NAACP says she plans to focus on equity, inclusion at the local level

The new head of Rutland's NAACP chapter says she'll focus much of her work on local-level issues of equity and inclusion.

Mia Schultz was named president of the Rutland NAACP last week. She takes over from Tabitha Moore, who founded the chapter four years ago.

Schultz said most of her time will be focused on the Rutland region.

"Really, I want to concentrate on our local Rutland chapter and the Rutland area – and that includes Bennington, where I live, too – trying to look at school systems and look at their police systems and how how they're making changes, because we know that that's happening now," Schultz said.

Schultz will take over the position in January.

In an interview this week, she said she has concerns for her safety, as she takes over a more visible leadership role.

Moore, Schultz's predecessor, has been open about the harassment she has faced in recent years.

Schultz said, as a person of color in Vermont, she's dealt with racism.

"I do worry about it," Schultz said. "I also worry about knowing that there's not a police or a system in place that will necessarily protect me. So it is the support that we have in this network of people throughout Vermont that sustains me."

Read or listen to the full interview.

- Henry Epp

4. Rep. Peter Welch says he supports compromise COVID relief package

Congressman Peter Welch says he's supporting a new compromise COVID relief package being developed in Congress.

House and Senate leaders are close to reaching an agreement on a new $900 billion stimulus bill.

Welch said the proposal doesn't include everything that he wanted but he said it does address some key issues.

"It would provide unemployment benefits, a continuation for about 20,000 Vermonters who literally wouldn't be able to pay their rent or pay for food and it will help our small businesses that are literally hanging on by their fingernails," Welch said. "So we need help for Vermonters now, so if this is the only way to proceed, then I will support this."

The package will also include a second round of stimulus checks for most Americans, although these checks are expected to be smaller than the $1,200 payments that were sent out last summer.

- Bob Kinzel

Welch says Trumps claims about the election undermine democracy

Congressman Welch says President Trump's decision to continue challenging the results of the presidential election is seriously undermining public confidence in government.

Despite Monday's Electoral College vote affirming Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the November 3 election, Trump refuses to concede and some allies in Congress may challenge the results in January.

Welch said he's appalled at Trump's actions.

"The will of the majority, the right of the people of this country to select their leader, is sacrosanct," Welch said. "Trump is challenging that and there are a lot of folks who believe President Trump and when he says it's a bogus election, they believe it and it undermines their faith. This is very damaging to the wellbeing of our democracy."

The House and Senate will meet on Jan. 6 to certify the Electoral College vote.

- Bob Kinzel

5. UVM Medical Center faces legal threats from federal government

The University of Vermont Medical Center is pushing back against legal threats by the federal government.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a notice to the medical center saying it had violated the so-called "Church Amendments." Those are laws that allow health care workers to opt-out of participating in abortions and other procedures due to religious or moral reasons. The agency was challenged in court and lost.

A more recent communication from HHS this week said the agency might take legal action.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the department, the hospital said it has and continues to allow employees the option not to participate in certain procedures.

In a statement, hospital president and COO Stephen Leffler called the latest communications from HHS "baseless."

Attorney General T.J. Donovan and the Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund joined in offering support for the UVM Medical Center.

- Brittany Patterson

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