News roundup: Health Department reports record number of opioid overdose deaths in 2021
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, opioid overdoses, an amendment to enshrine reproductive rights and more for Tuesday, Jan. 25.
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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 find the latest vaccination data online any time.
1. State officials report two more Vermonters have died from COVID-19
Vermont health officials reported Tuesday that another two Vermonters have died from COVID-19. The state’s pandemic death toll is now 523 lives lost.
According to the Health Department COVID dashboard, 101 people are hospitalized, with 22 in the ICU.
Officials reported an additional 420 COVID cases Tuesday, and a seven-day positivity rate of 11.4%.
- Elodie Reed
Hospitals across state continue to operate at or over capacity
Hospitals across the state continue to operate at or over capacity.
Northwestern Vermont Medical Center in St. Albans has had more patients than beds several times over the past week.
That’s from a combination of COVID patients and people who could be treated in a nursing home, but can’t find a place to go.
Now, the hospital is using beds in its maternity ward to care for an overflow of patients.
Staffing shortages also continue to be a concern. In the past month, more than half of the hospital's laboratory and respiratory therapy staff have been out because of COVID.
Still, hospital representatives say staffing issues have improved in recent days.
- Lexi Krupp
Vermont towns considering federal wastewater surveillance program
Six Vermont municipalities have been invited to take part in a federal program to test their wastewater for COVID-19.
Brighton, Canaan, Newport City, Northfield, St. Albans and Springfield were invited to join the federal program. VTDigger reports they still need to decide whether to participate.
A treatment plant operator told the news outlet that it might be tough wrangling enough personnel to conduct regular tests.
A handful of other Vermont towns and cities, including Burlington, have already tested their sewer systems during the pandemic.
- Kevin Trevellyan
2. Record number of Vermonters died from opioid overdoses last year, according to Health Dept.
A record number of Vermonters died from opioid overdoses last year, according to the Health Department.
A total of 169 people died from overdoses between January and October. Data from the final two months of 2021 are still pending – but the number of deaths already exceeds the total in 2020.
Nationally and in Vermont, opioid-related deaths have been rising since the start of the pandemic.
According to state data, Lamoille County has the highest rate of opioid fatalities.
- Liam Elder-Connors
3. Public hearing on reproductive rights amendment scheduled for Wednesday
State lawmakers will hold a public hearing tomorrow Wednesday on a proposed reproductive rights amendment to the Vermont Constitution.
The event comes amidst growing uncertainty over the future of Roe v. Wade.
House lawmakers will vote next week on whether to put the amendment to “ensure that every Vermonter is afforded personal reproductive liberty” before voters in the November general election.
But first, they’re giving the public one last chance to weigh in on the measure.
Supporters of Proposition 5, as the proposed amendment is known, say that abortion rights are under threat at the national level. And they say enshrining the right to abortion in Vermont’s constitution will solidify reproductive rights in the state.
Opponents say the proposal infringes on the lives of unborn fetuses.
The House Committee on Human Services public hearing runs from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
Members of the public can sign up to testify on the Legislature’s website.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. State taking applications for homeowner aid
Homeowners who are behind on mortgage payments due to the pandemic now have access to a new source of aid.
The federally-funded Homeowner Assistance Program provides grants up to $30,000 to cover overdue mortgage payments, utility bills and property taxes.
The $50 million program is funded by money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Maura Collins is executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the group administering the program.
“We're anticipating that we might be able to serve, probably, around 3,000 Vermont households. But that really depends on how much each household needs,” she said.
The program has several eligibility requirements, including income restrictions based on county and household size.
- Liam Elder-Connors
5. Labor Department stats show Vt. workers still in high demand
Vermont workers remain in high demand according to the latest statistics from the state's Labor Department.
Vermont's unemployment rate dropped by a tenth of a percent in December, to 2.5%.
Though the unemployment rate is back to where it was before the pandemic, there are still significantly fewer Vermonters participating in the workforce. That's despite thousands of open jobs.
About 19,000 fewer people are in the labor force now, compared to pre-pandemic. And the size of the workforce declined slightly in December, with about 250 fewer people working or seeking work, compared to November.
- Henry Epp
6. Gov. Scott calls for property tax rebates
The Scott administration thinks it's a mistake to use surplus money from the state education fund to lower the statewide education property tax rate.
Instead, it wants to issue a rebate to all property taxpayers.
The education fund is on track to record a nearly $100 million surplus that's largely the result of a strong performance by the state sales tax this year.
Tax Commissioner Craig Bolio says rebating half of the surplus directly to property tax payers will help them avoid rate shock in future years.
"And the benefit of doing that, as opposed to buying down fiscal year ‘23’s property tax rates, is that it will help prevent a future year spike that a rate buydown creates for subsequent fiscal years,” he said.
There could be spirited debate over the plan because House lawmakers may use the money to fund a major child tax credit program for working families.
- Bob Kinzel
7. Sanders calls for new Senate strategy
Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling on Senate Democratic leaders to take a new approach to passing critical legislation. That's as the current strategy has failed, he says.
Because the Senate is split equally, Democrats need all 50 members to pass legislation opposed by Republicans.
But two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have resisted most of the Democrats' key spending plans.
"For five months now there have been negotiations behind closed doors trying to get these senators – these two Democratic senators – on board,” he said. “That strategy, in my view, has failed. And it has failed dismally."
Sanders says he wants the Senate to vote on individual components of President Biden's "Build Back Better" plan to force all senators to take a stand on the issues.
- Bob Kinzel
8. State auditor says there are obstacles to analyzing how the government is performing
Vermont’s state auditor says the government needs to take a hard look at its process for assessing its performance. A new analysis from the auditor’s office found issues with the state’s outcomes report released last September.
The outcomes report is used to inform Vermont’s Legislature and the public on how well the government is serving its citizens.
In a Monday press release, State Auditor Doug Hoffer said he found several obstacles that impact how performance is evaluated in the report.
For example, he said some of the areas of the report do not adequately reflect issues impacting Vermonters, like inflation and access to broadband.
Hoffer said the issues raised in the analysis show a need to reassess the state’s process.
He says he hopes to continue working with legislators to develop useful and meaningful performance data.
- Marlon Hyde
9. State climate panel adopts Indigenous land acknowledgement
The Vermont Climate Council on Monday voted unanimously to adopt a land acknowledgement as part of the state's Climate Action Plan.
Indigenous scholar Judy Dow led the council in writing it.
The acknowledgement focuses on the place now called Montpelier: the traditional homeland of the Winooski people.
Climate Councilor Bram Kleppner read from the statement at the group's last meeting:
"We acknowledge with humility and gratitude how they have endured with one heart and one mind, and the protection they have provided to this land, in spite of the atrocities from which they themselves were not protected,” he said.
The land acknowledgement calls out the physical and cultural genocide the Winooski people have faced over the last four centuries – and their persistence.
- Abagael Giles
State climate panel urges lawmakers to act on mitigation measures
Vermont's Climate Council is warning lawmakers: they must move quickly to enact emissions-cutting programs in the new Climate Action Plan. Otherwise a state agency could be forced to intervene.
The Global Warming Solutions Act requires Vermont reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, and then go further.
If we don't, the state's Agency of Natural Resources could face legal action.
The new Climate Action Plan calls out a suite of steps to get there, including new regulations on large fossil fuel dealers in the home heat and transportation sectors. But with few exceptions, those solutions require legislative action to move forward.
New programs will need to be built out once they are approved. Lawmakers need to pass many of them this session to meet the 2025 deadline.
ANR staff warn: If Vermont doesn't move fast enough to reduce emissions, the agency may be forced to start its own process of creating regulations to get us there.
- Abagael Giles
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.