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News roundup: Vermont COVID cases, hospitalizations and positivity rate all dip slightly

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, Dec. 13.

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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 health officials report COVID cases, hospitalizations and positivity rate all down slightly

Vermont's cases, hospitalizations, and COVID positivity rate all ticked down Monday, state health officials reported, even as those key metrics remain elevated due to the widespread delta variant of the coronavirus.

State health officials reported 238 new COVID infections today, compared to nearly 800 over the weekend.

Hospitalizations — peaking in the low 90s last week — fell to 77 today, including 19 people in state ICUs.

And 4.6% of tests over the last week were positive — down from a high last week of 4.9% on Wednesday.

- Matthew Smith

Southwestern Vermont Medical Center halts in-person visitation

Southwestern Vermont Medical Center suspended patient visitation due to the state's current COVID surge.

The restrictions will also apply to Southwestern Vermont Health Care's practices and off-campus offices. It carves out exemptions for children, pregnant women, end-of-life patients and adults who need cognitive or physical help.

The health system will reassess the new policy based on how many people are in the hospital and the region's COVID case positivity rate, according to a news release.

Southwestern Vermont's announcement follows similar moves from the region's biggest hospitals, including University of Vermont Medical Center, Rutland Regional Medical Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health.

- Kevin Trevellyan

Middlebury College students heading home after campus COVID outbreak

Many students at Middlebury College are scrambling to leave campus early.

That’s after school officials decided to shift to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester after 50 students and two staff recently tested positive for COVID.

Students received an email last week saying finals will be held remotely, indoor events have been canceled or postponed and students are encouraged to depart campus as soon as possible.

Middlebury senior Riley Board says the move hasn’t been that disruptive for her, but is unsettling.

“There’s still something about getting the email that says ‘We’re moving to remote instruction, leave as soon as you can,’ that had a lot of the echoes of March 2020 and just how big that felt at the time,” she said.

So far, campus administrators say the COVID cases are mild and no one has been hospitalized. Nearly all students are fully vaccinated.

- Abagael Giles

2. Kenneth Johnson’s estate files lawsuit against state, alleging racism and negligence

The estate of a Black man who died in custody at a Vermont prison is suing the state, alleging racism and negligence.

The lawsuit, reported by VTDigger, was filed last week in Washington County Superior Court, and alleges the Vermont Department of Corrections and its agents negligently failed to diagnose and treat a tumor that led to Kenneth Johnson’s death in December 2019 at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.

The wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit further alleges that the department and its then-medical contractor, Virginia-based Centurion Health, discriminated against the 60-year-old Johnson due to his race.

A corrections spokesperson said the department had no comment on the suit, in a statement to VTDigger.

Centurion officials did not reply to messages seeking comment.

A report released by a law firm in November found that DOC staff should have done more to help Johnson, who complained repeatedly that he could not breathe, and their response was insufficient to keep him from dying from a breathing obstruction caused by a tumor.

- Associated Press

3. Pandemic relief helping Vermont economy

The short-term outlook for Vermont's economy looks good, due in large part to the massive amount of federal pandemic funds that have flowed into the state in the past 18 months.

Legislative economist Tom Kavet says Vermont has received just over $10 billion in various federal pandemic recovery programs, and much of this money has found its way into the state economy.

"It's hard to wrap your head around the magnitude of these numbers,” he said. “And when you see it flow into the economy, there are a lot of unpredictable ways that it flows and moves around, but it's going to be affecting the economy and revenues for quite a while to come.”

Kavet says Vermont could receive an additional $2 billion if President Biden's proposed Build Back Better legislation passes Congress.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont tourism season looking promising

State officials are expecting a strong winter and spring tourism season unless the COVID-19 pandemic gets a lot worse in the coming months.

Legislative economist Tom Kavet told lawmakers last week that strong growth in the state's Meals and Rooms tax is a clear sign that many people feel safe visiting Vermont.

"And the fact that you can drive to Vermont from so many places — there's roughly 50 million people within about a five-hour drive from Vermont — has brought a lot tourism to the state. And Meals and Rooms has benefited from that,” he said.

Kavet says housing prices in Vermont's resort areas have also experienced dramatic growth in the last 18 months.

- Bob Kinzel

4. Transit ridership down

Nearly two years into the pandemic, few Vermonters have returned to public transit. Buses are about half as full as they were before COVID hit.

Transit ridership dropped precipitously in the spring of 2020. But by the spring of 2021, riders were starting to come back — up to 71% of pre-pandemic levels, according to statewide data.

Ross MacDonald, public transit program manager at the Agency of Transportation, says the agency even launched a “get back on the bus” campaign in July.

“And we pulled that campaign a few weeks after it was launched because the delta variant was creating increased risk along with increased infections,” he said.

By October, ridership was back down to just 43% of pre-COVID numbers. MacDonald says he doesn't expect riders to fully come back until the pandemic improves.

- Henry Epp

5. Waterbury holds River of Light Parade

After a winter off due to the pandemic, Waterbury held their 12th annual River of Light Parade on Dec. 4.

People lined up on Main Street to watch elementary school students, families and other community members carry hand-made lanterns. The parade was led by an almost all-volunteer band that performs Afro Cuban rhythms from Brazil.

Sarah-Lee Terrat helped organize the event.

“We have Santa Claus at the back of the parade, which is a young man who has always wanted to be Santa Claus in a parade. He has special needs and this is like, his life’s dream to be doing this,” she said.

Duxbury residents Erin Swift and her son, Winter, attended the event. They reflected on this year's theme: "What Brings You Joy."

“It’s the dark days of winter so bringing in the light is always a good thing,” Erin said.

“This is just an awesome event for people to just create,” Winter said.

After the parade, the community gathered around a big bonfire.

This story was reported by the Community New Service's Megan Schneider.

6. Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint announces she’ll run for U.S. House

Becca Balint announced Monday that she's running for Vermont's sole seat in the U.S. House.

Balint joins Lt. Gov. Molly Gray on the roster of candidates looking to fill Vermont's House seat, now held by Congressman Peter Welch.

Welch's seat will open next year as he seeks the Senate post that will become vacant after the announced retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Balint, a Democrat serving the Windham district, is the current Vermont Senate President Pro Tem, and has served in the state Senate since 2014.

- Matthew Smith

Madeleine Kunin hopeful for women politicians

Vermont is the only state that has never sent a female senator or representative to Washington. But the state's only female governor, Madeleine Kunin, says she thinks that could be about to change.

Speaking on Vermont Editionon Thursday, Kunin said she's hopeful for this next generation of women politicians.

“I think our time has come. I'm very confident we will elect a woman. I can't tell you which woman, but she'll do a good job,” she said.

Kunin served as Vermont's governor from 1985 until 1991. She also founded an organization that recruits and trains women to run for office.

- Mikaela Lefrak

7. Climate change could impact maple sugar production

During an annual conference this week, maple sugarmakers learned more about how climate change could affect their industry. The latest Vermont Climate Assessment found the state is warming faster than the global average — especially in the winter.

Sap flows best from Vermont sugar maple trees on warm spring days that come after a bitterly cold night. But Vermont now sees on average seven fewer very cold nights a year than in 1900. And:

"Nights are warming faster than the daytime temperatures,” State Climate Forester Ali Kosiba said.

She says if that shrinking gap between high and low temperatures continues, it could mean sugar maples produce less sap in the future.

But there is also some good news.

Kosiba says most models predict that even if we don't curb global emissions, Vermont will still be suitable habitat for sugar maples through this century — even as they lose habitat elsewhere.

- Abagael Giles

8. Housing boom projected to continue

Vermont's record housing boom will likely continue well into 2022.

That's according to legislative economist Tom Kavet, who told lawmakers that home prices have increased more than 17% in the last year with strong growth in many resort communities.

Kavet says it's a classic case of high demand and low supply.

"That last quarter number is the highest that we've ever had. With interest rates low, capital plentiful, a long period of under investment in new housing — all the ingredients are in place for record price growth until supply catches up or incomes falter,” he said.

Kavet says the demand for single family homes is the highest it's been in many years.

- Bob Kinzel

Williston hotel being converted into 72 apartments

A hotel in Williston is being converted into 72 apartments for low- to middle-income residents.

The Champlain Housing Trust announced this month that it had purchased the TownePlace Suites by Marriott at Taft Corners, and plans to convert the apartments by the middle of next year.

The Burlington Free Pressreports38 of the apartments will be designated for people coming out of homelessness.

Over half of the apartments will be subsidized, tying tenants’ rent to 30% of their income.

The project, costing more than $13 million, will be paid for with state and federal recovery funds, among other state funding sources.

- Associated Press

9. Vail Resorts posts quarterly financial loss

The corporation that owns Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow ski resorts lost nearly $140 million in the quarter that ended Oct. 31.

In a press release, the CEO of Vail Resorts said the company typically loses money in the fall before most of its ski areas open for the season. Compared to the same quarter last year, the company reported losing less money this year.

Meanwhile, the company reported season pass sales were up significantly compared to a year ago.

Vail has also made capital investments at many of its resorts. It recently completed a chairlift replacement at Okemo, and plans to replace lifts at Stowe and Mount Snow in the next year.

The company owns 37 ski resorts around the globe, including eight in the northeastern U.S.

- Henry Epp

10. State providing flood mitigation funding

The Scott administration on Friday announced a $2.6 million initiative to reduce flood risk. It's part of an effort to protect public safety and water quality in small communities in the face of climate change.

Six towns and three organizations across the state will receive funding for 11 projects designed to boost flood resilience. They range from floodplain restoration projects and tree plantings to building buyouts.

In Berlin and Brandon, the state will purchase a total of four structures that are deemed to be “flood prone.” The state is also purchasing a building in Rockingham deemed to be threatened by landslides.

In each case, the property owners agreed to the deal.

Climate change is expected to bring more frequent extreme precipitation events and more floods to Vermont.

Another $2 million will be distributed for similar programs early next year.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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