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News roundup: St. Albans hospital cancels elective surgeries because of COVID case surge

A blue background with the words Vermont News Roundup with a green Vermont icon over the "R"
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Oct. 1.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta variant is now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. State officials report 189 new COVID cases, one more death Friday

The Health Department reported Friday that 189 more Vermonters have contracted COVID-19, and one more person has died from the virus.

The pandemic's death toll now stands at 318 since March of last year.

Today's new cases were in all 14 counties, with Chittenden and Orleans counties reporting around 50 cases each.

A total of 48 people are hospitalized with COVID, 10 needing intensive care.

And 88% of eligible Vermonters now have at least one vaccine dose.

Vermonters 65 and older — as well as those 18 and older with underlying health issues — can now get a vaccine booster shot, but only if they've previously had the Pfizer vaccine.

- Matthew Smith

COVID case surge forces St. Albans hospital to cancel elective surgeries

The latest surge in COVID cases has prompted at least one Vermont hospital to cancel elective surgeries.

Jonathan Billings works in community relations Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans

“For us it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster,” Billings said. “We will have days when the impact is less, and days when the impact is strong. And today is strong.”

Hospitals in Vermont haven't had to cancel electives since the earlier surges of the pandemic.

Billings says Northwestern is seeing high numbers of COVID patients in their urgent care centers, emergency departments, and in the hospital.

They’re also facing staffing shortages as many employees have to stay home with children exposed to COVID at school.

One of their Franklin County urgent care clinics was closed Friday and will be again on Saturday because of limited staff.

- Lexi Krupp

2. Report finds Burlington Police Department understaffed

A long-awaited assessment of the Burlington Police Department finds the force is currently understaffed and the city should hire more officers.

The more than 160-page document was compiled by the consulting firm CNA with assistance from the city.

The reportfound BPD should have between 77 and 80 sworn officers. Last summer, the city council capped the force at 74 officers.

Consultants analyzed four areas: training, police bias, staffing and alternative police responses.

And while the report found the department has made progress, it also laid out nearly 150 recommendations.

They include adding training around de-escalation, responding to mental health calls and implicit bias. The agency should also collect better traffic stop data, and BPD should "dramatically" enhance the use of community outreach and policing.

- Brittany Patterson

3. Vermonters experiencing homelessness speak out over motel housing expiration deadline

Vermonters experiencing homeless are speaking out against the looming expiration of a program that’s provided emergency motel housing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Long-term motel resident Josh Lisenby says the program provides more than just stable housing.

“I was finally talking through some real trauma and learning how to deal with it so that I could have a normal life," Lisenby said. "I had support, I had people that seemed to care, and were doing things to help me realize some goals.”

Olive Lavalette has been living in a state-subsidized motel room for nearly six months.

She says people in her situation have nowhere else to turn.

“And this isn’t on people like us, it’s on the state for not supplying affordable housing for the disabled and vulnerable to make sure that we are consistently housed,” she said.

Self-advocates like Lisenby and Lavalette have joined advocates in calling for an extension of the emergency motel housing program, which is set to expire for many people next month.

They say Gov. Phil Scott should extend the program until at least Dec. 31.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. National Flood Insurance Program changing way it assesses risk

The National Flood Insurance Program is changing the way it assesses risk, starting Friday, Oct. 1.

About 3,300 Vermonters have federal flood insurance, which is run by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The agency predicts the vast majority of those people will see their premiums either increase moderately or decrease.

Vermont's Department of Financial Regulation oversees insurance markets, and Commissioner Michael Pieciak says the changes mean policy owners with lower-value homes will no longer pay for more than their share of the risk.

"Previously, if you had a house — two houses that were in the same risk zone, but one house was a million dollars, the other was $200,000, you know, they're paying the same amount, essentially,” he said.

Pieciak says people will start to see rates decrease this week, but increases won't go into effect until April 2022.

 - Abagael Giles

5. Vermont to receive more than $1.2 million in federal funds to address unemployment fraud

Vermont is getting just over $1.2 million in federal funding to help root out fraud in the state's unemployment program.

The federal Labor Department announced the awards Friday.

The money can be used to strengthen identity verification, enhance fraud detection, increase cybersecurity and expand overpayment recovery efforts, the agency says.

Last spring, Vermont was one of many states that saw an influx in fraudulent unemployment claims. In March, the Vermont Department of Labor stopped accepting new online applications for unemployment benefits after 90% were deemed to be fake.

- Brittany Patterson

6. Welch encourages Vermonters to not think price tag, but services, in infrastructure bill debate

The future of a $3.5 trillion social infrastructure bill in Washington remains unclear.

The bill, which has passed in the House, still needs to pass the U.S. Senate.

Congressman Peter Welch on Thursday told VPR’s Vermont Edition that Vermonters should think less about the price tag, and more about what’s in the bill.

“There's child care that was going to make it possible for middle and low income families to be secure about their kids each day,” Welch said. “Number two, there's pre-K. We want early education."

Some progressive Democrats have vowed to vote against a smaller $1 trillion infrastructure package, until the votes are secure for the larger bill, which would include money for social programs and fighting climate change.

Hear the full conversation.

 - Brittany Patterson

7. Rights & Democracy joins school officials asking to change Vermont's education funding formula

A progressive political organization is throwing its weight behind a push for changes to Vermont’s education funding formula.

Dan Fingas is organizing director for Rights and Democracy.

During a press conference Thursday, the group called on lawmakers to overhaul the school funding formula.

“The current formula fails to properly account for the cost of educating children who attend small schools, rural schools, come from low-income households or require English language learning services,” Fingas said.

A coalition of school officials from across Vermont is also seeking changes to the funding system.

They want the funding formula to reflect the higher cost of educating students from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds.

- Peter Hirschfeld

8. Migrant Justice celebrates four years of farm worker human rights program

The farm worker advocacy group Migrant Justice will celebrate four years of its farm worker human rights program Saturday.

In 2017, Migrant Justice signed an agreement with Ben & Jerry’s that requires the company’s dairy suppliers to comply with a code of conduct. It's aimed at improving housing, pay and schedules for dairy workers.

Since the program began, Migrant Justice says it’s impacted workers on more than 60 farms in Vermont and New York.

On Saturday, the group will launch a three-week speaking tour to lobby Hannaford supermarket to join the Milk With Dignity program.

An event in Burlington’s Leddy Park will begin at 11:45 a.m.

- Elodie Reed

9. Cannabis Control Board partnering with Efficiency Vermont

The Vermont Cannabis Control Board is partnering with Efficiency Vermont to ensure that all cannabis growers adhere to strict energy conservation measures.

Indoor cannabis operations are considered to be one of the largest consumers of energy of any agricultural crop the board says.

And it says it's expecting that most indoor growers will have at least four harvests through the course of a year.

Board member Kyle Harris says it's critical for these growers to have access to the most energy efficient equipment that's available.

"Efficiency Vermont has been a part of this conversation,” Harris said. “The way that Efficiency Vermont works, is if you go above and beyond the regulatory floor, they have rebate incentives, and they have programs that are ready for as soon as we're ready."

The board is scheduled to create a retail cannabis marketplace in Vermont by next fall.

- Bob Kinzel

10. Northern Vermont still experiencing dry conditions

The portion of Vermont experiencing dry conditions didn't substantially shrink this week, the latest federal data shows.

Streams in the Northeast Kingdom are still flowing at well below normal levels, even as southern Vermont continues to see flows that are much higher than average.

USGS data shows groundwater levels in the southern part of the state have largely recharged, but in the Kingdom, remain at just 10% of normal.

Eight northern counties are seeing abnormally dry conditions, with parts of Franklin, Lamoille, Orleans and Essex counties still in moderate drought.

One year ago, more than 70% of Vermont was experiencing moderate drought.

NOAA finds the northeastern part of the state would need to see about 9.5 inches of rain in the next month, to fully recover.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed compiled and edited this post.

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