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News roundup: Health officials report nearly 2,000 new COVID cases Thursday, 13% positivity rate

Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Thursday, Jan. 13.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron variant is 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 1,963 new cases, 91 hospitalizations on Thursday

Vermont health officials reported 1,963 new COVID cases Thursday.

A total of 91 people are currently hospitalized with the disease, with 28 of them in the ICU.

The state’s seven-day positivity rate continues to be at its highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, at 13%.

Officials reported no new deaths today. Since March 2020, 490 Vermonters have died due to the coronavirus.

- Elodie Reed

Hospital system pivots to emergency staffing

The University of Vermont Medical Center is operating under an emergency staffing plan starting Thursday.

It will deploy staff to areas of highest need, which could lead to the cancellation of outpatient clinics or certain services.

That’s as more than 400 employees are out from work due to COVID exposures, symptoms or testing positive.

The hospital said the number is expected to rise, and the emergency plan will likely be in place for a number of weeks.

Hospital leaders called on Vermonters to get vaccinated and boosted to help support our health care workers.

- Lexi Krupp

COVID-19 cases rising in eldercare centers 

COVID-19 cases have more than doubled at elder care facilities in Vermont in the past week, according to state data.

There were at least 58 new cases in the past week compared to 20 the previous week.

Dane Rank is administrator at Thompson House, a 60-bed elder care home in Brattleboro. He says earlier in the pandemic the state focused on keeping the virus out of facilities. But now, he says the strategy has shifted.

“Now it seems that all of the focus is on identification and isolation and treatment,” he said.

Rank says the health department helped him get monoclonal antibody treatments for four residents at Thompson House who tested positive for COVID last month, and all four survived.

Read/hear the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Travel workers fill gaps in Rutland hospital

Nurses and paramedics provided by the federal government have helped fill in staffing shortages at Rutland Regional Medical Center over the past week.

Still, hospital resources are stretched thin, with few available beds.

That's according to Senior Director of Quality and Safety Meg Oakes, who spoke with VPR Monday.

“We’ve got more COVID patients than I think we’ve ever had in-house. And I think we will have more and more by the end of the day, based on what the ED had this morning,” she said.

Oakes says the hospital is running out of rooms with a certain type of air flow that helps prevent the spread of COVID and other infectious diseases.

Despite the strain, elective procedures are generally proceeding as normal. She says that’s because they usually don’t require an overnight hospital bed.

- Lexi Krupp

Uncertain whether lawmakers will make scheduled Jan.18 return to Statehouse due to COVID

It's uncertain when lawmakers will return to the Statehouse.

That's because members of the Legislative Rules Committee were unable to agree Wednesday on the criteria that should be used to determine if it's safe to come back.

The House and Senate have been meeting remotely for the first two weeks of session because of concerns over the omicron variant.

Senate Majority leader Alison Clarkson argued that no matter what criteria is used, now is not the time to return to in-person legislating.

"We've been told it's going to be at least another three weeks until we hit the peak of omicron. So to come back in the middle of a raging variant seems not a wise or responsible choice for us,” Clarkson said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Statehouse next Tuesday unless the Joint Rules Committee votes to work remotely for another week.

- Bob Kinzel

2. Vt. Supreme Court revisiting decision that could set major precedent for state’s land use law

The Vermont Supreme Court is revisiting a decision that could set major precedent for the way Vermont’s land use law – Act 250 – is applied in the roughly 45% of Vermont towns that don’t have local zoning regulations.

The state’s highest court this fall decided that a proposed quarry in Cavendish does not trigger Act 250 review – despite an argument by a group of neighbors that it sits on a greater than one-acre parcel of land. That’s the threshold for requiring an Act 250 permit in towns that don’t have their own zoning rules.

As planned, the quarry itself would be less than an acre in size. The Supreme Court ruled this exempts it from needing a permit.

A coalition of seven former chairs of the board that oversees Act 250 disagrees. They filed a brief with the court, arguing if the court upholds its decision, It would go against years of precedent and the law’s intent.

The Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental group, says the decision would gut development oversight.

The court heard oral arguments Wednesday. All parties agreed that it was the size of the parcel, not the development, that should determine whether an Act 250 permit is needed. The court is expected to issue an opinion soon.

- Abagael Giles

3. Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale announces bid for U.S. House of Representatives

Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale is running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

She told VPR that, if elected, she’ll champion progressive policy initiatives such as the Green New Deal in Congress.

But she says she’s previously collaborated with Republican lawmakers in Vermont on economic and social justice issues.

“So I am just known as somebody who is a pragmatic progressive who stands in my values, but also makes space for other voices so that these messages can get further than I can, and we can start to bring a divided nation further together,” Ram Hinsdale said.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray announced their Democratic campaigns for the U.S. House last month.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. New poll shows 68% of Vermonters approve of governor’s handling of pandemic, down from 83% in July 2020

A total of 68% of Vermonters approve of Gov. Phil Scott’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s according to a new poll commissioned by VPR and Vermont PBS, which found that only 22% of residents disapprove of the governor’s pandemic management.

Scott’s pandemic approval rating is down by 15 percentage points since the last time VPR and Vermont PBS gauged public opinion,in July of 2020.

But despite rising case counts in Vermont, 77% of Democrats still approve of Scott’s COVID-19 response.

And 58% of Republicans say they approve of the way Scott is handling the pandemic.

The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 4%.

Read the full poll results.

- Peter Hirschfeld

5. Leahy supports filibuster reform

Sen. Patrick Leahy says he'll support efforts to eliminate the filibuster in order to take up a voting rights bill this month.

The rule requires 60 senators to approve most legislation in order for it to move forward. All 50 Republican members have announced their opposition to bringing the voting rights bill up for debate.

Leahy says this is a case where the importance of addressing this issue outweighs the need to preserve a Senate rule.

"We should be able to just go ahead and vote for voting rights. In the past that's been nearly unanimous, but if people are willing to block the ability for people to vote, well, then of course we have to adjust the filibuster,” he said.

The Democrats might not have the votes to end the filibuster because two members of their caucus have signaled their opposition to the change.

- Bob Kinzel

6. Rutland City school board votes to bring back “Raiders” name

Rutland City’s school board voted this week to bring back the Raiders team name.

The board retired the controversial name in 2020, deeming it offensive and hurtful to Indigenous people.

The board adopted a new name, the Ravens, early last year – but decided to return to the old Raiders moniker in a 6-5 vote Tuesday night.

- Associated Press

7. UVM Medical Center moves rehab unit back to Colchester campus

The University of Vermont Medical Center on Wednesday began moving its inpatient rehab unit from its main campus back to the Fanny Allen campus in Colchester. That's after addressing air quality issues in the building.

The Fanny Allen rehab unit closed in May 2020, and again in November 2020, after staff reported chronic dizziness and nausea.

Since then, UVM Medical Center has updated the building's ventilation, air conditioning and heating units, according to a news release.

Moving rehab patients back to the Fanny Allen campus opens up beds in the main UVM Medical Center building, the release says. That's part of the hospital system's plan to reduce delays in outpatient, inpatient and specialty care.

- Kevin Trevellyan

8. Gov. Scott worried about health care labor force

As the number of COVID cases continues to rise, Gov. Phil Scott says he's concerned about the ability of health care workers to respond to this crisis.

State modeling projects a sharp increase in cases over the next three weeks. It's possible that 10% of all Vermonters could become infected during this time period.

"I'm concerned about the labor force, and what the effect will be, especially, on health care workers and essential services. That is one concern – making sure that we provide for those essential services that we need to get through this,” he said.

The administration believes the surge of cases will start to decline in the beginning of February.

- Bob Kinzel

9. State lawmakers seeking to create child welfare office

Last year, the Vermont House approved legislation that would establish an independent child welfare office. And key Senate lawmakers say they plan to send the bill to the governor’s desk in 2022.

Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons says the measure would ensure independent oversight of residential facilities for children.

“It will be a separate office,” she said. “It will have some independence, but it will be linked in with the state and have some authority to keep an eye on kids and maybe connect [the Agency of Education] with [the Department for Children and Families.]”

The new office would also monitor the welfare of children in the criminal justice system.

Lyons says the proposal was spurred in part by alleged mistreatment of children at some residential facilities.

- Peter Hirschfeld

10. Lake Champlain Basin prone to climate change-related flooding

A new study from the University of Vermont finds climate change could double the amount of property damage in Vermont's Lake Champlain Basin over the next 100 years due to flooding.

Using new, more detailed maps, researchers at UVM estimate flooding could cause more than $5.2 billion in property damage, but the impacts won't be felt evenly.

The study found mobile and lower value homes were most likely to be in a floodplain. The Winooski River watershed is expected to see the most damage. Lead author Jesse Gourevitch says climate policymakers should take note.

"You need to not only look at what are the types of interventions that are most effective at reducing damages, but who are the people who these interventions are actually helping the most? Are they wealthier individuals? Or are they individuals who might be less prepared and less able to recover after a flood event?” she said.

But there's some good news: the study found that restoring floodplains by adding vegetation, replanting wetlands and shoring up riverbanks could reduce those potential damages by 20%.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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