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News roundup: Welch wants to investigate traveling nurse agency pricing during the pandemic

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, Feb. 7.

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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. Vt.’s COVID case numbers, hospitalization rates, daily death counts declining

Vermont’s COVID case numbers, hospitalization rates and daily death counts are declining.

According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, no new deaths have been reported since last week. Today there are 149 new documented COVID cases.

A total of 88 people are currently hospitalized, including 21 in the ICU.

Vermont’s seven-day COVID positivity rate is down to 8.2%.

- Elodie Reed

COVID outbreak grows at St. Albans prison

An outbreak of COVID-19 is growing at the state prison in St. Albans. The Department of Corrections reported nine additional infections today, bringing the total number of cases to 12.

The facility has been tested daily since the first case was detected on Jan. 30., according to DOC. The prison is currently on full lockdown to limit spread of the virus.

DOC says there are currently 21 incarcerated people statewide who are COVID-positive, and 25 cases among corrections staff.

- Liam Elder-Connors

2. Welch calls for investigation into whether traveling nurse agencies have price gouged during pandemic

Congressman Peter Welch is calling for an investigation to see if traveling nurse staffing agencies have price gouged during the pandemic.

Welch says he supports higher wages for nurses in their role as frontline health care workers.

But he thinks many for-profit staffing agencies have unconscionably raised their rates by as much as 400% over the last two years, placing huge financial burdens on small rural hospitals.

"But the Wall Street firms are exploiting that for the benefit of Wall Street executives, and it's really costing millions and millions of dollars to our small rural health care providers, and that's what I want to get to the bottom of,” Welch said.

Welch's letter to the White House COVID-19 Task Force has been signed by 200 House members.

- Bob Kinzel

Welch questions Republican National Committee’s stance on insurrection

Congressman Peter Welch says he's shocked and disappointed that the Republican National Committee is now describing the Jan. 6 insurrection as a valid political action.

Welch was among several dozen members still in the House when rioters forced their way into the chamber.

In a resolution adopted Friday, the RNC referred to the riot at the Capital as "ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse."

"I'm really shocked, and what you're seeing is the RNC doubling down on ‘the big lie,’” Welch said. “The Trump ‘big lie’ is that he didn't lose the election – the RNC ‘big lie’ is that there was no violent attack on the Capitol."

Welch says he's hopeful that the special Jan. 6 commission will uncover the facts leading up to the Capitol insurrection.

- Bob Kinzel

3. Former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman running for his old job

Former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman says he wants his old job back.

Zuckerman announced on Monday morning that he’ll run for the lieutenant governor’s post he departed in 2020 to launch a failed bid for governor.

“Really there’s no experienced and effective progressive voice in statewide office right now that can really fight on behalf of working Vermonters,” he said.

Zuckerman served two terms in the lieutenant governor’s office before challenging Republican Gov. Phil Scott in the 2020 general election.

Scott won that race by more than 40 percentage points.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Woodstock Rep. Charlie Kimbell, nonprofit executive Patricia Preston and former Danville state representative Kitty Toll are also seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Former Danville Democratic state representative is running for lieutenant governor

A former Danville Democratic state representative is running for lieutenant governor.

Kitty Toll joins a crowded race for the seat, with incumbent Molly Gray running for Congress.

VTDigger reports Toll describes herself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. She says she would prioritize expanding broadband access and housing availability if she wins the race.

The lifelong Northeast Kingdom resident served 12 years in the Legislature.

- Grace Benninghoff

4. State lawmakers consider Social Security tax reform

A key House committee is backing a plan to reduce Social Security taxes for middle-income people.

Currently, Vermonters who rely solely on Social Security benefits don't pay state income taxes on these payments. But state taxes are applied if the person has extra income sources.

House Ways and Means committee chairperson Janet Ancel says the plan increases the income limit to exempt a person from paying state taxes on their benefits.

"So we're really talking about households who have some other income,” she said. “They might have a small retirement; maybe they’re working part-time somewhere. These are not wealthy households with high incomes – these are very middle-income.”

Gov. Phil Scott has been urging lawmakers to eliminate state taxes on Social Security payments because Vermont is one of just a dozen states that tax these benefits.

- Bob Kinzel

Lawmakers advance proposal to ban slavery in Vermont

A proposed Constitutional amendment that bans slavery is on its way to Vermont voters.

The House voted 139 to 3 in favor of the measure on Friday.

Williston Rep. Hal Colston said the proposal is needed because Article 1 of the Vermont Constitution permits slavery until a person reaches the age of 21.

Colston, who is Black, said the language is harmful.

“My truth as a descendent of enslaved Africans is that this current language gives the appearance that there may be an exception for the existence of slavery and indentured servitude,” he said.

Voters will get to weigh in during a statewide referendum in November.

- Peter Hirschfeld

5. Animals die in barn fires in Stowe, Alburgh

A Vermont farm has lost more than 100 cattle in a fire that ripped through its barn in Stowe.

WCAX-TV reports that the Percy Family Farm barn was engulfed in flames late Wednesday night. The barn housed more than 100 animals and several pieces of equipment.

The fire happened the night after another fire destroyed a barn in Alburgh, killing 20 animals. The owner said she checked on her barn around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday before going to bed, and around 11:20 p.m., she looked out her back window to see it in flames.

The animals, including horses, cows, lambs and chickens, died.

- Associated Press

6. State releases preliminary results of watershed chemical testing

Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation has been monitoring for PFAS – also known as "forever chemicals" – in Lake Memphremagog. The full findings are due later this winter, but some preliminary results are in.

This summer and fall, the state collected fish tissue samples at four sites from the lake and its tributaries, which span the U.S. Canada border.

One site was on the Clyde River, below the Newport City wastewater treatment plant. The facility used to process leachate (“garbage juice”) from Vermont's only open landfill.

The state contracted an independent lab to analyze 30 fish tissue samples from yellow perch, largemouth bass and brown bullhead.

They looked for 36 of the manmade, toxic chemicals and found just three at detectable levels. Of those, PFOS was the only one Vermont regulates in drinking water. It was present at low levels in 30 of the 36 tissue samples.

The DEC also sampled fish at a more pristine pond in Concord and found similar levels of the forever chemicals there.

- Abagael Giles

7. 36 Vermonters lose jobs after Drinksworks abruptly shuts down

Thirty-six Vermonters are losing their jobs, after a company that made a Keurig-style machine for alcoholic drinks abruptly announced it was shutting down in December.

The company Drinkworks made a system that allowed customers to make cocktails – like an old fashioned, whiskey sour, or mai tai – with the push of a button.

The machines use "pods," which were developed and manufactured in Williston, until the company announced it was shutting down in mid-December. According to a letter sent by the company to the Department of Labor, most employees were let go – with a severance offer – on Jan. 31. Some workers are staying on until the end of March, as the company winds down its operations.

Drinkworks launched in 2018. It was a joint venture of Keurig Dr Pepper and Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser. It received a business incentive from the state of Vermont, worth up to $1.4 million. State payments to the company will be recaptured by the Tax Department.

Read the full story.

- Henry Epp

8. Winter Olympics kick off with dozens of New Englanders

In Beijing on Friday morning, the winter Olympics officially began with the opening ceremonies. The U.S. team includes more than 200 athletes – with 33 from New England.

Team U.S.A. lists Olympians by hometown, and Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont can each claim nine athletes. New Hampshire and Maine each have three, with none from Rhode Island.

New Englanders make up eight members of the U.S. hockey teams, and seven freestyle skiers.

- New England News Collaborative

9. Independent Brattleboro school to shut down due to challenges worsened by pandemic

Brattleboro-based Neighborhood Schoolhouse has announced it will close this month due to challenges worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 1980, the independent school has offered programs to children from nursery to elementary school age.

The Brattleboro Reformerreports the school did not have the staffing needed to run its elementary program this school year.

According to the Reformer, the school has partnered with Horizon Early Learning Center to find placement for its early education students. Elementary students will complete the school year either at the school or in a classroom rented offsite.

Neighborhood Schoolhouse is slated to close on Feb. 25.

- Lydia Brown

10. Vermont has its first shared town forest

Vermont has its first shared town forest. At just over 250 acres, the Ashley Town Forest straddles the town line between Sharon and Strafford.

The land was donated by the Alliance for Vermont Communities and will remain undeveloped in perpetuity.

The nonprofit purchased the property in 2018 to protect it from a proposed development.

Kevin Gish is on the Sharon Selectboard:

"My goal is to get the word out and let people know that this wonderful forest is out there and waiting to be investigated and explored and all sorts of fun things,” Gish said.

Sharon and Strafford residents voted in favor of the community forest on Town Meeting Day last year.

Vermont Land Trust and the Housing and Conservation Board helped with the transfer.The land will be jointly managed by representatives of both towns.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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