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News roundup: Data show one in six Vermonters have tested positive for COVID

A red 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 Monday, Jan. 31.

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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. State officials report three more Vermonters have died from COVID-19

Vermont’s COVID case numbers and seven-day positivity rate continue to trend downwards, though state officials reported Monday that three more people have died.

Vermont’s death toll now stands at 536 people.

A total of 96 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, with 26 in the ICU.

The state’s dashboard shows 317 new cases today, and a positivity rate of 9.3%.

- Elodie Reed

St. Albans hospital opens overflow wing

Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans had to open up a new wing to care for an unusually high number of patients.

Like other hospitals in the state, it hasn’t been able to transfer patients to nursing homes or speciality hospitals.

This backlog of patients comes on top of high demand in the emergency department and urgent care.

Northwestern Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Minadeo says every day is a challenge right now.

“Last week we had to cancel elective inpatient surgery because of a bed shortage. You know, there’s downstream effects for that,” he said.

He says about a third of patients are testing positive for COVID.

And he doesn't expect the hospital to be in a better position until March.

Read the full story.

- Lexi Krupp

Data show one out of every six Vermonters has tested positive for COVID

Data show one out of every six Vermonters has tested positive for COVID.

And Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says many Vermonters are asking him whether that means it's inevitable that most people are going to become infected in the coming months.

"Should we all just get COVID and get it over with? My answer is ‘no,’” he said. “Even though many of us are vaccinated and highly protected from serious outcomes, we cannot always predict who may become seriously ill. Your own health could be just fine, but you could still spread the virus to someone else who is too young get vaccinated or is vulnerable and at higher risk for COVID.”

Levine is urging all Vermonters to get a COVID booster. He says it offers the most effective defense against the virus.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont wildlife biologists testing deer for coronavirus

Vermont is among 41 states testing white-tailed deer for COVID-19 on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The first round of results have been sent to a national lab for processing.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife tested about 100 deer this past hunting season, mostly at weigh stations around the state.

Nick Fortin, who leads the department's deer and moose research, says so far, they've just collected antibody tests using blood samples. But the department plans to swab deer nostrils for PCR tests starting next season.

COVID-positive deer have already been found in Quebec, within miles of the Vermont border:

"Given what's been found everywhere else people look for it, we just expect that some of our deer will be infected here,” Fortin said.

There is mounting evidence that deer are catching COVID from people, though how is still not well understood.

Fortin says Vermont's federal funding goes through 2022, but he sees the monitoring continuing indefinitely.

- Abagael Giles

State lawmaker calls for COVID vigilance

Jericho Rep. Dr. George Till is urging his House colleagues not to become complacent about following COVID protocols as the number of cases in Vermont begins to decline.

Earlier this week, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said he believed the recent surge of omicron cases has peaked and that lower case levels are projected for the next few weeks.

Till said it was important to remember that over 100,000 Vermonters, about 1 in 6, have now tested positive for COVID in the last two years.

"I hope people will understand that the pandemic is not behind us and that we cannot drop our guard,” he said.

Till says he also remains concerned about the impact that the pandemic is having on the state's health care system.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont town reverses course to pass mask mandate

The town of Windsor has joined more than a dozen other Vermont municipalities in passing a temporary indoor mask mandate this week.

Select board members reversed an earlier decision and supported the measure after an “impassioned plea” from a Mt. Ascutney Hospital representative, according to reporting from the Valley News.

The town will revisit the need for a mask mandate at the end of February.

- Lexi Krupp

2. UVM study shows high rates of mental health issues for people working and incarcerated at Springfield prison

Staff and people incarcerated at the Vermont state prison in Springfield have high rates of suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, according to a survey conducted by University of Vermont researchers.

The Times Argusreports that the survey conducted last June found that 49% of staff at the Southern State Correctional Facility developed anxiety since starting their career, 46% developed depression, and 10% seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.

Among inmates, the study found that 70% developed anxiety, 65% developed depression and 36% considered suicide.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml called the report disturbing.

The national suicide prevention lifeline is available 24 hours at 800-273-8255.

- Associated Press

3. VELCO calls for grid upgrades

As home heat and transportation electrify, Vermont’s grid operator projects electricity demand will grow dramatically in the coming decades – especially in the winter.

Vermont Electric Power Company says it can meet that demand through the next decade without building more transmission lines, but major technological upgrades will be needed.

One way is through flexible load management, which helps electric utilities even out seasonal and daily peaks in demand. That requires, among other things, more fiber optic cable to people's homes.

"We are recommending we ramp up our ability to control loads. And that's the only way to avoid transmission upgrades and other grid reinforcements,” Hantz Présumé with VELCO told lawmakers this week.

Présumé says this also means building new high-tech infrastructure to store data tied to electricity usage. VELCO says funding is needed to ensure these changes happen in a way that reaches all Vermonters.

- Abagael Giles

4. State college system asks lawmakers to shore up long-term finances

Vermont state colleges are asking lawmakers for $36 million to pay off a longstanding structural deficit.

With the influx of federal funds this year, Sharron Scott, chief financial officer for the state college system, says it may be the Legislature’s only opportunity to shore up long-term finances for state colleges.

“And we fully acknowledge that this is the most difficult funding for you to provide, but it’s some of the most essential,” she said.

Scott told lawmakers that the colleges would spend the money over the next four years.

The state college system is also seeking a $12 million increase in annual base funding from the state.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Child advocacy nonprofit pushes for state child tax credit

Vermont's largest children's advocacy organization is throwing its support behind a plan to create a $50 million child tax credit.

Under the proposal, families would receive $100 a month for each child 6 and under, or $1,200 a year per child.

Michelle Fay, executive director of Voices for Vermont's Children, recently told the House Ways and Means Committee that the plan is an important investment in children.

"Children who experience material hardship are more likely to have worse outcomes in both the short and the long term, as compared to their more affluent peers,” Fay said. “Even modest income transfers similar to what's proposed here can improve child health and longevity, child-parent relationships."

The legislation is also being reviewed by several other House committees.

- Bob Kinzel

Nonprofit asks lawmakers to fund nursing tuition aid

A state-backed nonprofit that provides educational funding assistance is urging lawmakers to approve a proposed increase to its budget next year.

Gov. Phil Scott wants to provide the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation an additional $3 million in tuition assistance for nursing students.

VSAC’s Marilyn Cargill told lawmakers last week that the money would be used to boost subsidies to students who promise to practice in Vermont when they graduate.

“The award is currently $6,000. That is not even half of tuition at the least expensive institution for nursing tuition,” she said.

The proposed increase for VSAC is part of a broader workforce development plan that would inject more than $20 million into higher education in Vermont.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Addiction recovery community members support bill decriminalizing drug possession

Members of the addiction recovery community in Vermont are lending their support to legislation that would decriminalize possession of all illegal drugs.

Melissa Story, with Recovery Vermont, told House lawmakers last week that fear of arrest and prosecution is often a barrier to seeking treatment.

“It’s the criminalization that looms over them, not as an adequate deterrent to their use, but as a deterrent to addressing the underlying issues that have led them to use substances,” Story said.

A bill recently introduced in the Vermont House last week would decriminalize possession of personal use amounts of opioids, cocaine, and other drugs.

Nearly a third of the House’s 150 members have signed on in support of the legislation.

- Peter Hirschfeld

UVM president urging lawmakers to support $10 million funding increase

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed a $10 million funding increase for the University of Vermont.

And UVM President Suresh Garimella is urging lawmakers to support the appropriation.

Garimella told lawmakers last week that it’s been 14 years since UVM last received an increase in base funding from the state.

“This increase will essentially bring us back to where we were about 14 years ago. and certainly allow us to remain strong, healthy and competitive for the years ahead,” he said.

Garimella said UVM has gone three straight years without increasing tuition rates.

He said the proposed funding increase will help the university keep that tuition freeze in place.

- Peter Hirschfeld

5. Cannabis regulators pitch financial incentives for opening dispensaries

The Vermont Cannabis Control Board is asking lawmakers to offer financial incentives to towns to encourage them to allow retail cannabis stores in their community.

The board is proposing that a small part of the proposed 14% state excise cannabis tax be given to towns to help them with any unexpected costs associated with a retail operation.

Recently, board member Kyle Harris told the Senate lawmakers that the state's retail marketplace will work best if many towns participate.

"The board has made a recommendation. I know that there's a lot of things moving throughout the Legislature on trying to address that and give more incentives for municipalities to actually host these retail establishments,” he said.

So far, 33 towns have voted to allow retail cannabis stores and another 16 will vote on the issue on Town Meeting Day.

- Bob Kinzel

6. Welch advocates for separate vote on plan to allow fed’l gov’t to negotiate drug prices

Congressman Peter Welch says he's convinced that a plan to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Currently, the proposal is part of President Biden's "Build Back Better" plan, which faces an uncertain future in Congress.

Welch says a drug price negotiation bill could easily pass on its own. And he's asking Democratic leaders to hold a separate vote on this issue.

“The polling shows that Republicans totally support by wide margins price negotiations, and in fact, you know I met with then President Trump shortly after he was elected, and he supported price negotiations,” Welch said. “So you've got clarity about what you're voting on."

Welch says the bill would significantly lower drug costs for most Medicare recipients.

- Bob Kinzel

7. VT Supreme Court rejects appeal over Pawlet weapons training facility

Daniel Banyai wanted the Vermont Supreme Court to reconsider a decision it made earlier this month concerning his controversial weapons training facility in Pawlet.

But the court said no.

In a short ruling released Friday, the court denied a motion Banyai and his attorney filed on Thursday, saying they had failed to identify points of law or fact that had been overlooked by the court.

On Jan. 14, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that had ordered Banyai to shut down his tactical shooting facility, known as Slate Ridge, and pay the town of Pawlet more than $46,000 in fines for violating local bylaws.

- Nina Keck

8. Nearly 30 farm animals rescued in St. Albans Town Thursday

Nearly 30 farm animals were rescued in St. Albans Town on Thursday. That’s after police determined they were not receiving adequate care.

VTDigger reports 21 sheep and seven horses lacked proper food, water and shelter, and one horse had an untreated cut on its leg, according to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

Police say the neglect was a result of an aging person who “lost the means and ability to properly care for the animals.”

All of the animals have been relocated to care facilities in southern Vermont. Police say a representative from Age Well, an advocacy group in northwestern Vermont, was available to assist the property owner.

The animal rescue effort had assistance from the state Agency of Agriculture, the Human Society, and the Dorset Equine Rescue

- Karen Anderson

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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