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News roundup: Vermont ties its all-time high with COVID hospitalizations Monday

A red background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the R of roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, Nov. 29.

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.

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1. Vermont ties all-time high for COVID hospitalizations on Monday

Vermont health officials Monday reported that 68 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, tying the all-time high set just last week.

The state reported an average of 330 cases per day over the Thanksgiving holiday, and four more deaths.

The positivity rate jumped to 4.5%, and 82% of eligible Vermonters have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, including more than 34% of 5-to-11-year-olds.

- Matthew Smith

Vt. health commissioner says no omicron COVID cases detected in Vermont yet

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says his department is monitoring the spread of a new COVID variant detected in South Africa last week.

But the Scott administration has no plans to revise COVID mitigation measures in Vermont.

In a statement to media outlets on Monday, Levine said the Health Department has yet to identify any cases in Vermont that are associated with the omicron variant.

But Levine says early research suggests the variant appears to be more contagious than previous strains of COVID, and has already shown up in Canada.

Levine says the state is continually conducting genomic sequencing on COVID specimens in Vermont and will alert the public if and when the omicron variant is detected here.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Quebec confirms first case of omicron COVID-19

Quebec has confirmed its first case of the new omicron COVID-19 variant, according to the CBC.

The case was confirmed in a woman who had recently traveled to Nigeria. Two other Canadian cases were confirmed yesterday, both in Ottawa.

Quebec health officials said that Canada could impose stricter reentry requirements for anyone traveling abroad, according to the CBC. And they asked residents to reconsider holiday travel plans.

- Mark Davis

More COVID cases found at Northern State Correctional Facility

An COVID-19 outbreak at the state prison in Newport continues to grow — the Department of Corrections reported three new infections last week among the incarcerated population.

Twenty-seven people held at Northern State Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID since Nov. 10. Contact tracing is underway and more testing will be scheduled, according to DOC.

Eleven staffers have also tested positive during the outbreak.

There are COVID-19 cases among the incarcerated population or staff at all six in-state prisons.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Vermont No. 1 in COVID testing per capita

In the last few weeks, a record number of Vermonters have been tested for COVID — in fact, Vermont leads the country in per capita testing levels, data show.

Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak, who oversees Vermont COVID data tracking, says that while the number of new cases increased by 4% last week, the number of tests increased by 16%.

He says this has lowered the state's positivity rate to under 4%.

"So that has actually driven down our positivity rate over the last week or so — that as you know is something we've been looking at closely. What's the amount of testing that's occurring? What's the positivity rate to try to get a sense of if infections and if the virus is more or less prevalent in our community?” Pieciak said.

Almost 70,000 Vermonters were tested for COVID last week.

- Bob Kinzel

Dartmouth hospital restricts visitors due to COVID

Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is restricting visitors to the hospital and outpatient centers.

Adults are allowed one visitor or caregiver a day, while kids can have two. Pregnant people are also limited to one companion during their stay. There’s an exception for patients receiving end-of-life care.

Hospital officials say the move is to protect patients and staff while there’s substantial community transmission of COVID.

- Lexi Krupp

State officials say high vaccination rates are allowing older Vermonters to avoid COVID infections

State health officials say one reason that many older Vermonters are reporting lower infection rates during the recent COVID surge is because this population has the highest vaccination rate of any state in the country.

Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak, who oversees Vermont COVID data tracking, says almost 99% of all Vermonters over 65 are fully vaccinated. He says 60% of this group have also gotten a booster shot.

"Vermont has been leading the nation in those 65 and older getting their booster shot, so encouraging sign there as well in terms of getting the most vulnerable their booster shot,” he said.

Pieciak says he hopes that booster rates will increase for younger Vermonters as these individuals become eligible for the vaccine.

People become eligible six months after their final Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or after two months if they received the Johnson & Johnson shot.

- Bob Kinzel

Vt. League of Cities and Towns urges municipalities to prepare for new vaccine rule

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns says municipalities should prepare for a new federal coronavirus vaccination rule that’s currently being challenged in court.

The Biden administration issued the rule earlier this month. It says any business or local government with more than 100 employees must require vaccinations or have a weekly testing program.

About 30 municipalities in Vermont would have to comply with the new rule if it goes into place. It's currently being challenged in federal court.

But this week the Vermont League of Cities and Towns sent out a memo saying local governments should get their vaccination policies ready, because the rule would go into place soon after the case is settled.

Under the proposed rule, towns would have to provide time off for employees to get vaccinated, as well as maintain vaccination records.

This week, the Biden administration asked the federal court to reinstate the vaccination rule, which was supposed to start on Jan. 4.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Health commissioner says flu vax rates are lower compared to last year

The Health Department is reporting the first cases of influenza in the state, and officials say this could be a tough flu season because fewer Vermonters have been vaccinated this year.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says flu vaccination rates are running roughly 25% lower this year compared to last year.

Levine is urging Vermonters to get a flu shot as soon as possible.

“We're already seeing cases of flu in Vermont,” he said. “Not a lot, but we have already seen some. So it seems like unlike last year we will have a flu season. We are well behind last year's record-setting uptake of flu vaccinations."

Levine says flu shots and COVID vaccines can be given at the same time.

- Bob Kinzel

2. Gov. Scott says he isn’t planning on running for Congress

Gov. Phil Scott says he's not interested in running next year for the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House.

Because there are vacancies in both positions, and because Scott has some of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, national Republicans are urging him to run for either congressional seat.

But when Sen. Leahy announced earlier this month that he would retire in 2022, Scott quickly dampened any speculation that he might run for the Senate.

Now with Congressman Peter Welch running for Leahy's seat, there's another vacancy.

Scott says he views the workings of Congress in Washington as a toxic political environment -- and that includes both the House and the Senate.

"It's still going to the same place, right?” he said.

Because congressional vacancies don't happen very often, both races are expected to draw a large field of candidates.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Chipmaker’s efforts to start own utility dividing environmental advocates and state regulators

Chipmaker GlobalFoundries' bid to become its own utility has created a divide between environmental advocates and state regulators who advocate for utility customers.

At issue is whether GlobalFoundries would sell power to the tenants on its Essex Junction campus if it becomes its own utility. The outcome of that debate could determine whether Global would be required to buy most of its electricity from renewable sources.

The Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers, filed a brief to the Public Utility Commission last week arguing the company will not sell power to its tenants. That could allow GlobalFoundries to avoid Vermont's renewable energy requirements.

Elena Mihaly of the Conservation Law Foundation calls the department's stance disappointing.

"As the public's advocate, we really think that the department should hold GlobalFoundries responsible to do its part to reduce climate pollution by complying with the renewable energy standard,” she said.

The Department of Public Service said the state should have some role in regulating GlobalFoundries' greenhouse gas emissions.

- Henry Epp

4. Contaminated loon eggs found in New Hampshire lakes

Toxic contaminants have been found in several failed loon eggs across multiple New Hampshire lakes.

A report released last week by the Loon Preservation Committee says significant levels of hard-to-detect toxins were found in the loon eggs, the Valley Newsreports.

A test of more than 80 failed eggs collected from 24 lakes over the last decade found 60% had contaminants known to cause negative effects on bird health and reproduction.

The report found high levels of PCBs and another class of chemicals, known as BDEs, used in flame retardants. Their source remains unknown.

The committee says the results are a cause for concern for loon populations, other bird species and entire lake ecosystems.

The committee called for more state-led testing, and the state of New Hampshire plans to test more fish for contaminants.

After the committee's report, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services tested fish in Squam Lake, which corroborated the report's findings. It has led to an advisory to anglers not to consume any yellow perch or smallmouth bass from the lake.

- Matthew Smith

5. Afghan refugees arriving in Vermont, New Hampshire

Some 35 Afghan refugees have now arrived in Vermont.

State officials last week said the families and individuals — among those airlifted out of Afghanistan with U.S. forces in August — are now living with host families.

Many are still worried about the safety of relatives left behind in Afghanistan, which is now controlled by the Taliban.

NBC-5 reports state officials expect Vermont to see about 225 Afghan refugees by early next year, settling primarily in Chittenden, Windham and Rutland counties.

Meanwhile in New Hampshire, more than 50 evacuees from Afghanistan have arrived so far, according to two resettlement agencies in the state that have received help from volunteers in getting them situated.

Ascentria Care Alliance tellstheConcord Monitor that one family has been placed with a family that has an in-law apartment. The agency is looking at that as a model in communities.

Ascentria has formed neighborhood support teams: volunteers of about 10 to 30 people in a community who commit to helping a family get situated.

Group members help evacuees find employment, enroll kids in school and offer rides to medical appointments, among other assistance.

- Brittany Patterson and Associated Press

6. Smugglers’ Notch road closed for the season

The Vermont Agency of Transportation says Smugglers’ Notch, the winding mountain pass between Stowe and Cambridge, is closed for the season.

The roadway, known officially as Route 108, will reopen in the spring.

The Transportation Agency said last week that "with the current winter weather that we have experienced so far and the expected trend, VTrans is leaving Scenic VT 108 `The Notch' closed for the season."

The agency added it's "hunkered in for the winter."

- Brittany Patterson

7. State officials urge COVID precautions during indoor winter sports

State officials are encouraging all athletes, referees and spectators of indoor winter sports to get vaccinated and to wear masks.

But Gov. Phil Scott says the final decision about implementing this policy should be made at the local level.

Scott says he doesn't support a statewide winter sports mandate, but he thinks requiring masks makes a lot sense.

"It's good for people to do that. I think it is the path forward — especially indoors — but this is really a decision that they need to make locally,” he said.

The administration is hoping that its voluntary indoor policies will also be adopted by both youth and adult recreational sports leagues throughout the state.

- Bob Kinzel

8. Vermont reassessing how to meet transportation climate goals after other Northeast states leave joint initiative

As Vermont works on its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a move this month by three New England governors to pull out of a regional cap-and-invest program for the transportation sector may complicate things.

Modeling suggests the state will need to put 170,000 electric vehicles on the road this decade to comply.

Joining the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program was supposed to help fund the transition, but Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut recently dropped out, making its fate uncertain.

Peter Walke is commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and sits on the Climate Council.

"The reality is that without TCI in the plan, it leaves a significant hole in the emissions reductions picture,” Walke said. “And we are not proposing alternatives at this time."

Walke says council members are still recommending the Legislature prepare to join — but also look at other ways Vermont can meet its short-term emissions goals.

- Abagael Giles

9. Southern Vermont road reopens after summer flooding damage

One of southern Vermont’s most heavily damaged roads from last July’s torrential rains is about to reopen.

The contractor in charge of the project says River Road in Putney is expected to reopen this week.

The Bennington Bannerreportsresidents have been forced to take detours since the July storms, which hit Windham and Bennington counties hard, dumping more than 5 inches of rain in three hours and causing deep washouts in the road.

The River Road project is costing about $345,000, and is the most expensive of the repairs the town undertook.

In total, there was about $1 million in damage, with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — paying 75% of the repair costs, and the state covering another 7.5%.

- Associated Press

10. Alburgh shooting leaves two dead, one injured

Two people were killed and one was injured in a shooting in Alburgh on Saturday.

Vermont State Police say they received multiple calls Saturday night with a report of a shooting at a home on Cameron Drive.

Two were found dead, and one was injured and taken to a hospital.

Late Sunday, state police identified the two men who died as 51-year-old David Mohamed and 41-year-old Larry Cameron, both of Alburgh.

The injured man was identified as 27-year-old Devin Cameron, also of Alburgh, who was reported to be in critical but stable condition.

Police say the shooting arose from an ongoing dispute over access to a property for hunting. No one is in custody, and police say there is no ongoing threat to public safety.

Vermont State Police are investigating the incident, along with the Grand Isle County State’s Attorney.

- Anna Van Dine and Associated Press

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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