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News roundup: COVID-19 kills 8 more Vermonters

Elodie Reed

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

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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. COVID-19 kills eight more Vermonters

State health officials reported eight more Vermonters have been killed by COVID-19, as the Health Department counted a near-record number of new virus infections Thursday.

In all, there were 661 new cases reported today, second only to last Thursday's all-time high of more than 730 cases.

The number of Vermonters hospitalized with COVID dropped to 60 people -- about a third of whom are in intensive care.

The state's average rate of tests coming back positive grew at 4.6%.

Some 85% of eligible Vermonters are now at least partially vaccinated, including half of 5- to 11-year-olds.

- Matthew Smith

Hartford reverses course, approves local mask mandate

The town of Hartford reversed course this week and approved a local mask mandate, after rejecting a mask requirement just two weeks ago.

The Valley Newsreports the local select board adopted the measure Tuesday night, a reversal spurred by surging COVID cases and hospitalizations in both Vermont and New Hampshire in recent weeks.

Select board members say they voted for the new mandate in part because local business owners and residents asked them to do so.

Hartford joins other Upper Valley towns that recently implemented new mask mandates, including Thetford and Norwich, while towns like Hanover and Lebanon have required masks for months.

- Matthew Smith

COVID outbreak grows at Newport prison

Eleven more coronavirus cases have been reported at the state prison in Newport – the latest in an outbreak that began November 10th, and has since grown to 65 cases.

Corrections officials say just three incarcerated people and three staff currently have the virus.

Northern State Correctional Facility remains on full lockdown.

Statewide, the Vermont Department of Corrections reports 21 active cases, including 16 among staff and five among incarcerated individuals.

- Brittany Patterson

2. Scott administration wants to spend about $5 million to address prison staffing crunch

The Scott administration wants to spend about $5 million to address a staffing crunch in Vermont prisons.

Corrections officials have previously warned that staffing levels at prisons are reaching dangerously low levels.

Commissioner of Finance Adam Greshin told lawmakers on Tuesday that his agency wants to enter into a deal with the state workers union that includes retention bonuses and hiring incentives.

“These new side agreements affect not only corrections, but also mental health, specifically the psychiatric care hospital,” Greshin said.

The proposal would also address workforce shortages at a residential mental health facility in Middlesex.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Scott administration trying to make rentals accessible to those transitioning from homelessness

The Scott administration wants to remove the financial risk to landlords who rent to Vermonters transitioning from homelessness.

Commissioner of Finance Adam Greshin asked lawmakers Tuesday to sign off on the creation of a $5 million rental risk mitigation pool.

The money would ensure that landlords are paid rent even if tenants default.

“ I think the committee will know – that’s been a challenge to find housing for people there, and to encourage landlords to open up their apartments and houses to these people,” he said.

The proposal is part of a broader plan to address housing insecurity in Vermont.

The Scott administration is also asking lawmakers to allocate an additional $100 million in coronavirus relief funds for affordable housing.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. Federal dollars could help Vermont meet house weatherization goals

Congressman Peter Welch says new federal funding will allow more Vermonters to weatherize their homes.

Recently, the Scott administration committed almost $8 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the program.

And the state is set to get an additional $15 million from the infrastructure bill signed into law this year.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday in Burlington, Welch said updating Vermont's aging infrastructure benefits many different groups.

“The whole point of that money is to get it back to the communities where all of these community partners are working together – creating an outcome that's good for the environment, good for jobs and good for homeowners who can save money,” he said.

According to preliminary modeling for the state's new climate action plan, Vermont needs to weatherize at least 90,000 homes by 2030 to meet its emission reduction goals for that year.

- Marlon Hyde

5. Lawmakers may bring police reform legislation to upcoming session

Several influential Vermont lawmakers say they plan to pass legislation next year that would make it easier for people to sue police officers for civil rights violations.

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland area branch of the NAACP, says the bill would eliminate the qualified immunity doctrine that protects officers from being sued for acting negligently or in bad faith.

“By ending qualified immunity in Vermont, we send the message that accountability exists – that from here on out, there will be consequences for actions,” she said.

Law enforcement officials in Vermont are already speaking out against the proposal.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling says he has grave concerns about the bill. And he says it would likely exacerbate staffing shortages at law enforcement agencies.

- Peter Hirschfeld

6. Changes to milk price insurance program expected to provide $3.1 million to Vermont farmers

Enrollment begins this week for a program that insures dairy farmers against fluctuating milk prices.

Sen. Patrick Leahy recently announced changesto the Dairy Margin Coverage program, including adjusted feed costs and milk production calculations. Leahy's office says the changes would provide an additional $3.1 million to Vermont dairy farmers this year.

Darlene Reynolds is among those farmers. She and her family milk about 540 cows in Alburgh, and she says while she’s appreciative of the additional funds, money from a previous program intended to help dairy farmers — announced in August — still hasn’t come through.

“We’re happy that we’re getting the help, and we’re not denying it, but it’s just taking such a long process to get dollars to the dairies,” she said.

Reynolds said that dairy farmers would rather not rely on the government, but during a challenging time in the industry, programs like Dairy Margin Coverage are helpful.

- Elodie Reed

7. Sanders opposes FDA commissioner nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders says he'll vote against President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration because of his ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Robert Califf has millions of dollars in pharma-related stock and has received consulting fees from major drug companies, according to a news release from the senator's office.

Sanders also voted against Califf when he was confirmed as FDA commissioner under former President Barack Obama in 2016.

A Senate panel questioned Califf on Tuesday, with several members using the opportunity to criticize the FDA for not reining in the opioid epidemic. If confirmed, Califf vowed to take an aggressive approach.

The FDA is also responsible for approving COVID-related treatments and vaccines.

- Kevin Trevellyan

8. Dartmouth to stop offering on-campus housing for graduate students

Officals at Dartmouth College recently notified student leaders that the school would not provide on-campus housing for graduate students next year.

The decision comes as a blow to people like Keighley Rockcliffe, a student in the physics and astronomy program and president of the Graduate Student Council.

Rockcliffe says several students have had to defer enrollment because they couldn’t find housing by the start of fall term.

And she says the housing policy change means attending Dartmouth is inaccessible to many, particularly international students and the incoming class.

“The only people I would recommend coming here are people who already are secure financially,” she said.

Dartmouth College officials acknowledged that graduate students were not involved in the decision-making process.

They said a new housing complex several miles from campus will prioritize spots for graduate students.

- Lexi Krupp

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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