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Health Department Reports 130 New COVID Cases, 2 More Deaths

A person in a mask hands over a coffee through a window to another person
Elodie Reed
Middlebury's Royal Oak Coffee barista Colette Penniello serves New Haven resident Erika Smith through a COVID-cautious takeout window on Dec. 23.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Thursday, Dec. 31.

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The latest coronavirus data:


1. State reports 130 new COVID cases, 2 new deaths

On Thursday, state health officials reported 130 new cases of the coronavirus and two new deaths.

A total of 136 Vermonters have died in the pandemic since March, and currently 25 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, with seven in the ICU.

Among the newest cases, 43 are in Chittenden County, Addison County reported 14, and Bennington and Windsor counties each saw 15.

In Bennington, the Vermont Department of Health is responding to COVID-19 cases at the Veterans' Home.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says the Health Department is now testing all staff and residents after six staff members tested positive.

“There will be a facility-wide PCR test taken today at the facility, and then continued twice a week, PCR testing, for the near future,” Smith said.

Bennington County is a current hotspot for the coronavirus. The Bennington Police Department recently saw six cases among staff, including its police chief.

- John Dillon and Brittany Patterson

School COVID testing shows low positivity rates

Vermont's schools have mostly avoided outbreaks of COVID 19. And state officials say the low case numbers mean more students should be able to return to in-person classes after the holiday break.

Education Secretary Dan French said at Thursday's news briefing that an aggressive testing program shows a very low positivity rate in Vermont schools, especially when compared to neighboring states.

French says some schools will continue with remote, or hybrid learning programs in January. But he says all should move to in-person instruction as soon as it can be done safely.

“As we shift into what will be the recovery phase, it will be important for all schools to prioritize increasing the amount of in-person instruction,” he said. “Our recovery work in education will be predicated on the restoration of in-person instruction, in-person routines, and in-person relationships.”

French says the state will adjust its reopening guidance if conditions change.

- John Dillon

2. The state says federal government delaying shipping vaccines

The Scott administration says the federal government has delayed shipping much-needed COVID-19 vaccines to the state.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at Thursday's news briefing that the state expected to receive 11,000 doses by now, but has instead gotten 7,800.

He says the state plans to have residents in skilled nursing facilities receive their first dose of the vaccine by Jan. 8, and the second by the end of the month.

Health care workers and emergency medical technicians are also getting the first batch of vaccines.

- John Dillon

First veterans at White River Junction VA receive COVID-19 vaccinations

The first veterans at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction received COVID-19 vaccinations Thursday.

In a news release, the facility says it inoculated its first outpatient veteran with the Moderna COVID-19 at 10 a.m.

The White River Junction VA facility says it is offering the COVID-19 vaccine to veterans who are at the greatest risk for infection and severe illness based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those interested in getting the vaccine are asked not to come into VA centers. Instead, care teams will contact veterans as more vaccine becomes available.

- Brittany Patterson

3. AG dropping sexual assault, kidnapping charges against former St. Albans officer and his father

The Vermont Attorney General is dropping all charges, including sexual assault and kidnapping, against a St. Albans police officer and his father.

In April, St. Albans officer Zachary Pidgeon was charged with repeatedly raping a family member when the two were children.

Pidgeon and his father Allen were also charged with assaulting the same woman earlier this year when she began to speak up about this abuse.

The attorney general's office says it can't prove the charges quote "beyond a reasonable doubt at this time."

The Franklin County State's Attorney initially brought the case but the AG took over due to a conflict of interest.

Pidgeon was fired from the St. Albans Police Department in June, according to Seven Days.

- Liam Elder-Connors

4. Gov. Scott confident public health restrictions would withstand challenge in court

Gov. Phil Scott says he's confident his executive order mandating public safety measures during the COVID pandemic will withstand a potential court challenge.

The select board in Stamford in Bennington County voted recently to challenge the executive order on constitutional grounds. Gov. Scott, speaking on Thursday at his news briefing, says his legal counsel and the attorney general believe the state is on firm legal footing.

“An entity doesn't get to opt out,” he said. “They're all part of Vermont. And this has the effect of law. So we feel we're on very solid ground in this issue.”

This is not Stamford's first act of defiance against the governor's COVID restrictions. The town held a Christmas tree lighting ceremony despite Scott's order that people should not congregate in crowds.

- John Dillon

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Stamford Select Board Seeks To Sue Scott Over COVID Restrictions

5. Human Rights Commission: Calls down in first half of 2020

The number of phone calls that came in to the Vermont Human Rights Commission during the coronavirus pandemic dropped by more than 30%.

Vermonters call the Human Rights Commission to report unlawful discrimination in housing, state government employment and public accommodations.

The commission puts out an annual report every year, and data released this weekshows a sharp drop in the number of calls that were received between January and June.

The report says as Vermonters struggled to maintain their health and safety, housing, and employment during the pandemic, filing a complaint became a low priority.

The governor’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic might have also contributed to the decrease in the number of calls.

There were also fewer employment discrimination complaints, which the commission says could also be attributed to the pandemic, as more people worked at home.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

6. Vail Resorts employees file lawsuit against company

Three employees of Vail Resorts have filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging it has violated federal labor laws and those of nine states, including Vermont.

The Colorado-based company owns Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow ski areas in Vermont, as well as resorts across the U.S. and in Canada and Australia.

According to the Vail Dailynewspaper, the employees filed the lawsuit Dec. 3 in District Court in Colorado, seeking class action status on behalf of current and former employees.

The paper says the suit alleges that for years, the company has exploited employees by not paying them fully for hourly work or off the clock responsibilities that their jobs require.

According to the paper, Vail Resorts did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

- Steve Zind

7. Newly conserved land connects 100-mile corridor

A continuous stretch of conserved land now runs almost two-thirds the length of Vermont.

That's thanks to the conservation of a 350-acre property adjacent to Okemo State Forest in southern Vermont.

The property connects other protected lands in Vermont, creating the 100-mile-long continuous corridor.

Brigid Sullivan is president of the Mount Holly Conservation Trust, which worked with Vermont Land Trust and the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to purchase the land.

“You could walk from Warren, Vermont to the Massachusetts border and be on conserved land all the way,” Sullivan said. “Which is really an amazing protection for the wildlife and for climate resilience.”

The property cost $990,000. Sullivan says much of it was covered by donations.

The protected land will be accessible to hunters and hikers, and includes a portion of the Catamount Trail and a VAST trail.

- Anna Van Dine

8. Fish and Wildlife: 2020 a good year for deer (hunters)

2020 was a successful year for deer hunters, according to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harvest numbers for firearm and muzzleloader seasons were average, but a new record was set in archery season, with 5,800 deer taken.

Nick Fortin is the Deer and Moose Project Leader at the Fish and Wildlife Department. He says despite challenging hunting conditions, some regulation changes may have contributed to the successful year.

“But it also appears that the pandemic had at least some influence on the number of people out there in the woods, hunting,” he said, adding this likely accounted for some of the increased harvest as well.

The final tally isn't in yet, but the department estimates that it will be about 18,000 deer, which is the second-highest total since 2000.

- Anna Van Dine

9. FDA tells distilleries they owe fees for producing hand sanitizer

Earlier this year because of a shortage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration temporarily lifted regulations to allow distilleries to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Nationwide, about 800 distilleries went into action, including several in Vermont.

This week, the FDA notified those distilleries they'll have to pay a fee amounting to $14,000. The fee is something drug manufacturers are typically required to pay.

Alex Hilton of Vermont-based Mad River Distillers says he was shocked.

“The craft distilling industry as a whole really stepped up to help people out who needed sanitizer and were scared,” Hilton said. “So to kind of [do that for] six to eight months, and then all of a sudden be facing a large fine in a year where our sales were drastically lower than they should have been because of the pandemic, is just really ... you know, it's a disappointment.”

Hilton says he hopes the American Craft Spirits Association will be able to advocate on their behalf with the FDA, but what happens next is unclear. The fee is due Feb. 11.

- Nina Keck

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