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News roundup: COVID positivity rate rises over holiday weekend

A red background with the words Vermont News Roundup, with a green logo of Vermont on the "R"
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, Dec. 27.

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

1. COVID positivity rate rises over holiday weekend

The state health department Monday reported Vermont had more than 1,400 new COVID infections through the holiday weekend.

Nearly half of those cases, about 640, were from Thursday, with between 240 to 300 cases reported each subsequent day.

The 7-day positivity rate of new tests coming back positive jumped to 5.1% after edging close to 4% late last week.

Hospitalizations also jumped – now numbering 62 people – after falling to the low 50s the previous week.

There was also one more virus-linked death, bringing Vermont's total to 461.

The state's vaccination rate (last updated Saturday) shows 85% of eligible Vermonters are now at least partially vaccinated with one dose, including 53% of 5 to 11 year olds.

Report: Vermont should consider more safeguards on federal COVID aid spending

Vermont is receiving millions of dollars in federal funding to help the economy recover from the pandemic.

But a recent Joint Fiscal Office report says there should be additional oversight attached to how the money is spent.

A 2017 national report found that Vermont trailed other states in how it evaluates grant spending.

And the Joint Fiscal Office says with so much money coming into the state in the next few years it would be a good time to establish new oversight reviews.

The report points out that the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development both control spending and provide performance reviews.

The Joint Fiscal Office says the Legislature should consider a more independent review process.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Dartmouth hospital seeking blood donors

Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is calling for blood donations amid critically low blood supplies.

The medical center says part of the shortage has to do with mobile blood drives and other scheduled blood donations being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged short staffing.

The health center says it has implemented temporary blood conservation methods and is increasing collections from its Blood Donor Program.

Tattoos, piercings and related issues usually require would-be donors to wait up to a year before giving blood, but that wait time has now been cut to three months.

WCAX reports the health center says it's specifically in need of "O positive” and "O negative" blood donations.

The Red Cross notes the holidays are generally a time when blood supplies run low, but the pandemic has led to a critical blood shortage nationwide.

- Matthew Smith

2. State lawmaker calls for child care funding

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says it will be critical for lawmakers in the upcoming session to expand funding for child care programs, particularly if President Biden's “Build Back Better” plan continues to stall in Congress.

The proposed federal bill would ensure that no family has to spend more than 7% of their income for child care services, but its future is uncertain.

Balint says the Vermont Legislature needs to be ready to step in and deal with this issue if the federal plan isn't approved this winter.

"Yes, if Build Back Better falls apart we do have an obligation here in the state to make sure that we are trying to do everything we can to support working families — if the federal government isn't going to be able to get it over the finish line,” she said.

Balint says steps also need to be taken to expand the availability of child care services throughout the state.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Broadband windfall not expected to cover entire state

Vermont is receiving an unprecedented amount of federal money to extend broadband service, but lawmakers will have to come up with additional money to make sure everyone in the state is covered.

That’s according to a recent report by the Joint Fiscal Office, which lays out a strategy to make the most of the COVID relief money and infrastructure funding that’s earmarked for broadband.

A previous report put the estimate for the whole project at $392 million, and the Joint Fiscal Office says the new federal funding won't cover it all.

The report says the Legislature needs to figure out what performance and accountability measures should be tied to the funding, and says lawmakers should address the workforce challenges that could delay the project.

About 20% of the state either has no internet service, or has service that’s too slow to meet modern standards.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

4. St. Albans policing lawsuit moves forward

A lawsuit claiming a state trooper abused his authority during a traffic stop in St. Albans will be allowed to move forward, after a judge last week rejected the state's motion to dismiss.

VSP Trooper Jay Riggen pulled over Gregory Bombard in February 2018 after he thought Bombard gave him the finger. Riggen didn't issue a citation but as Bombard pulled away he swore at the trooper and gave him the finger, according to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Vermont.

Riggen then arrested Bombard for disorderly conduct, a charge that was later dismissed. Jay Diaz, general counsel at the ACLU of Vermont, says the case is an example of over-policing.

“We have too many people being arrested and cited for minor crimes like disorderly conduct when they haven't actually done anything significantly wrong, and maybe have done nothing wrong at all,” he said.

VSP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. New state fishing regulations set to take effect

Vermont's fishing regulations are getting an overhaul. Vermont Fish and Wildlife says the new rules, which go into effect Jan. 1, are easier to understand.

Most rivers, lakes and ponds will be open to catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures year-round.

VFW fisheries biologist Bernie Pientka says this cuts the list of lakes with seasonal fishing bans by about 50%.

"We actually removed 36 lakes from that list,” he said.

The winter season for trout on lakes and ponds will start earlier on Jan. 1. And the daily limit on the number of trout an angler can catch and keep from rivers and streams will be eight of any species – down from 12, with at most six being native brook trout.

Grey Hagwood with Trout Unlimited says the organization supports the new rules, but was pushing for a lower take limit.

"We wanted to get down to a six fish per day creel limit to be in line with all of our neighboring states,” he said.

- Lexi Krupp

6. Ski resorts seeing strong visitation

Vermont ski resorts are geared up for one of the busiest weeks of their season and the colder temperature and fresh snow are helping.

Officials at Okemo say Christmas bookings are strong this year. At Smuggler’s Notch, spokesperson Stephanie Gorin says it's one of the busiest holidays their lodging director can remember.

"We are booked solid until the end of December – we’re sold out through the end of this year. A lot of people started to call as soon as the snow started to fall on Saturday. They’re now pushing out their reservations into mid-January, mid-February and even some into March,” she said.

Resorts are still struggling with staffing shortages, and Gorin says the omicron variant has caused a decline in Canadian bookings.

But so far she says the pandemic has only strengthened American’s appetite for outdoor recreation.

- Nina Keck

7. Nonprofit converting motel into affordable housing

Last week, the Champlain Housing Trust announced the purchase of the Days Inn in Shelburne for $6 million. The nonprofit plans to create nearly 100 affordable housing units at the property.

The purchase was supported through federal COVID relief funds. Additional funds were provided to cover rehabilitation and redevelopment costs.

CHT officials say they will continue to need legislative assistance to meet Vermonters housing needs. CEO Micahel Monte says that on average there are about 10 applications for every available apartment.

“We have people who are waiting on various properties,” he said. “That is also true of homeownership as well as for rental, so the demand on our housing — the need that we have in front of us is dramatic.”

CHT expects renovations of the motel to take until the spring. Applications for the new units are available online.

- Marlon Hyde

8. State lawmakers eying permanent free meal program for students

The federal government has been subsidizing free school meals for all Vermont students during the coronavirus pandemic, and some Vermont lawmakers want to use state funds to make the program permanent.

Chittenden County Sen. Chris Pearson says the pandemic-era free meals program has been a success.

“What I hear out of schools from food directors is that it’s been really successful, made their life a lot easier. It’s more streamlined and straightforward, and has more participation from students because it’s universal,” he said.

The Vermont Agency of Education has raised concerns about the cost of universal free meals.

But some antihunger organizations in Vermont say the free meals legislation will be their top legislative priority in 2022.

- Peter Hirschfeld

9. Generic prescription drug prices outpacing brand name counterparts

The price of generic drugs increased more than the price of brand name drugs last year, according to a new state report.

The Vermont Attorney General’s office puts out an annual report on prescription drug cost transparency every year.

Of all the drugs that rose in price 15% or more in Vermont, 90% were generics. That’s up sharply from four years ago, when only 35% of the list were generics.

Generic drug prices rose by about 134% for the Department of Vermont Health Access in 2020, the report finds.

The report also found that the cost of lower priced generic drugs are rising faster than more expensive generics.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

10. Conservationists looking to spur small-scale forest carbon capture

The majority of Vermont's forests are privately owned. Although most landowners have plots that are too small to participate in forest carbon markets, a conservation group is hoping to change that.

As they grow, trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. When landowners enroll their properties in a carbon market, they can get paid for managing it in a way that stores additional carbon.

Vermont's new Climate Action Plan calls storing more forest carbon a key tool for the state to reach "net zero emissions" by 2050.

But there are big upfront costs. So functionally, carbon markets are only open to people with thousands of acres.

Starting next spring, the Nature Conservancy and American Forest Foundation hope to launch their Family Forest Carbon Program in Vermont. It will be open to parcels as small as about 35 acres.

"To date, nationwide, less than 1% have been able to participate in carbon markets. So expanding this to landowners of all types, and all incomes, is an important equity consideration,” said Jim Shallow with the Nature Conservancy.

The groups have released a handbook for landowners and foresters that outlines best climate management practices.

- Abagael Giles

Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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