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News roundup: State officials report record-high 940 new COVID cases Wednesday

A yellow 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 Wednesday, Dec. 29.

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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 findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. Vermont officials report record-high 940 new COVID cases Wednesday

The state Health Department reported 940 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, breaking Vermont's previous single-day record by roughly 200 cases.

The state also reported three more deaths today. The number of people hospitalized with the virus ticked down slightly to 55 people.

Meanwhile, Vermont's average positivity rate rose to 5.5%, indicating rapid community spread.

Some 86% of Vermonters have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 1% higher than Tuesday's figure.

- Kevin Trevellyan

State lawmakers kicking off upcoming session remotely

The Vermont Legislature will begin its 2022 session meeting remotely due to concern about the omicron variant.

The Joint Rules Committee also plans to develop specific health criteria to determine if it's safe for lawmakers to return to the Statehouse after the middle of January.

Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson said the projected surge in cases in the next two weeks raises concerns about the health and safety of legislators, staff and members of the public.

"With the freight train of omicron coming at us and with the expected holiday surge, we may expect 1,000 cases a day – this is a hard truth that we should probably meet remotely,” she said.

Lawmakers will begin their new session on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

- Bob Kinzel

State health officials want to mull new CDC coronavirus guidance

State officials say they were surprised by the announcement this week that the CDC would reduce the time people need to isolate once they test positive for COVID-19. The new federal guidelines reduce the quarantine time from 10 days to five.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says the Health Department wants to see more evidence before issuing its own guidance.

“This appeared out of nowhere – so it was very, very quick. So the whole public health establishment has to really get a little more of the scientific evidence behind what they did, which they haven’t shared yet or published,” he said.

Levine says once the CDC releases its data, the state might offer its own guidelines to better reflect what’s happening here in Vermont.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

State officials trying to get COVID tests to public

Vermont Human Service Secretary Mike Smith says the state is doing the best it can to distribute its limited supply of COVID-19 testing kits.

“These rapid take-home tests are an additional layer of testing offered during the holiday season. Demand is high and many sites ran out of the rapid take-home tests within hours last Thursday, and probably will today and tomorrow as well,” he said.

Smith says there’s a national shortage of at-home test kits.

The state distributed more than 50,000 tests on the days leading up to Christmas, and will give out about as many this week as well.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

More school closures expected amid omicron surge

Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said he expects the omicron variant to create school closures in January.

“I expect we will see some intermittent school closures in the coming weeks as a result of staff availability issues, since schools do not have many substitutes to draw upon,” he said.

Since there’s less remote learning this year, schools will have to ask for waivers if they don’t hold enough in-person class days to meet the state minimum.

French said he’ll be releasing a new process for schools to ask for attendance waivers later in January.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Scott administration plans to make rapid at-home COVID tests available to students beginning next month

The Scott administration plans to make rapid at-home COVID tests available to every student in the state at the beginning of next month.

Education Secretary Dan French says more than 80,000 tests will be given to all students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, when classes resume after the holiday break.

"And the parents, not the schools, will be responsible for administering the tests at home,” French said. “That's a major change that we're going to see. Essentially, the schools will become a distribution point of antigen tests for students and their families, not administrators of a testing program."

The administration plans to release specific elements of the student testing plan later this week.

- Bob Kinzel

2. Vermont voters expected to cast ballots on constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights

An expected decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming year to severely restrict abortion rights, or overturn Roe v. Wade entirely, is setting off a renewed round of abortion battles in state legislatures across the country.

Republican-led legislatures are likely to press for full bans, while Democratic-led ones are expected to push for more robust protections and ways to help women from other states.

Voters in Vermont will likely cast ballots in November on a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights – a process that began two years ago, and will require state lawmakers to approve the 'Reproductive Liberty Amendment' to the state constitution before sending the question to voters in the fall.

States like Kansas are taking a different approach: voters could cast ballots in that state's August primary on a proposal to amend the state constitution to say it provides no right to abortion.

- Associated Press

New Hampshire state budget provision, in effect in new year, bans abortion after 24 weeks 

The new year brings new laws for New Hampshire, including an abortion ban that was passed as part of the state budget.

The budget Gov. Chris Sununu signed in June contained a provision prohibiting abortion after 24 weeks, with exceptions for the mother's life or physical health.

Other new laws taking effect Jan. 1 include enhanced penalties for repeat drunken drivers who kill or injure others, as well as a trio of animal-related measures.

One requires drivers who injure or kill cats to notify police or the pets' owners, a mandate that has long existed for dogs.

And another new law protects sex workers who report sexual assault, and ensures they won't be prosecuted for prostitution under a new law aimed at encouraging victims to come forward.

- Associated Press

3. WhistlePig Whiskey founder plans to redevelop former college campus into “spirits destination"

The founder of WhistlePig Whiskey says he plans to redevelop the former Green Mountain College Campus as a new type of "spirits destination."

Raj Bhakta bought the 114-acre campus last year after the Poultney college closed.

His wife opened a private elementary school on the property in September.

Now Bhakta says they hope to begin a training school for older students on how to grow hops and grains, brew beer and make spirits.

He says they're in the beginning stages of the permit process.

“What people are going to see on campus here basically, is the reutilization of the existing buildings, as a school, a hotel, a convention center, a club, and a distillery and a home for the oldest spirits collection on Earth,” Bhakta said.

Town select board member Terry Williams says the project has a long way to go, but he’s excited by its potential.

- Nina Keck

4. Ice fishers can catch and keep trout beginning Jan. 1

Ice fishers this year can catch and keep trout – whether lakers, brook or brown trout, as well as rainbows – on most Vermont lakes starting on Jan. 1.

The same goes for land-locked salmon.

The ice fishing take limit for salmon and lake trout is two fish per day. The limit is six for other trout.

Anglers can catch and keep trout and salmon on Lake Champlain year-round, but they have to be a certain size.

Bernie Pientka is a fisheries biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, and says a quick and gentle “catch and release” is extra important on very cold days.

"If you're ice fishing, if you can, you know, release them in a way to keep them in the water,” Pientka said. “Make it fairly quick if you have to take them out."

Anglers should check this year's fishing regulations, and make sure they have a fishing license.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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