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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Vermont Sets Daily COVID-19 Case Record; Hospital Didn't Report Some Samples

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2020 at 2:40 PM

Staff testing samples at the Vermont Department of Health lab - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Staff testing samples at the Vermont Department of Health lab
Updated at 3:02 p.m.

The Vermont Department of Health reported 178 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, the most yet in a single day.

Three counties each set new case records: Chittenden, with 64 cases, Orleans, with 17 cases and Windham, with 13 cases. The tally includes two unconfirmed "probable" cases, officials said.

Thursday's total, just one week after Thanksgiving, breaks the previous state record of 153 cases set on November 18. New infections had dipped since then but remained higher than at any previous point during the pandemic.

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Attorney General Says He Would Vigorously Defend New Climate Law

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2020 at 1:17 PM

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEAUR
  • Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan says he would defend the constitutionality of a key piece of climate legislation if the governor makes good on his threat to sue to block the law.

Donovan said the Global Warming Solutions Act that was passed this year over a veto by Gov. Phil Scott is constitutional, despite Scott's claim to the contrary.

The escalation in the war of words over the controversial law could lead to a rare court standoff between the Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general.

“The Global Warming Solutions Act is constitutional and good policy,” Donovan said in a press release. “Vermont should be a leader in addressing global warming and should do what we can to meet our climate goals. There is nothing wrong with holding government accountable to the will of its people.”

Scott argued in his veto message and through administration officials that the legislature overstepped its authority by handing responsibility for crafting the state’s climate plan over to a 23-member Vermont Climate Council.

The panel held its first meeting last month, and its chair, Administration Secretary Susanne Young, reiterated her boss’s concerns. “If we cannot work out our differences and our concerns with the legislature, we may have no choice except to ask for clarity from the judicial branch,” Young said.

But in a letter to Jaye Johnson, Scott’s general counsel, Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond said claims of illegality “are without merit.”

Scott has argued that the legislature improperly delegated its authority to the climate panel. A court would likely find the law contains “sufficient policy standard and guidance to pass constitutional muster,” Diamond wrote.

Diamond takes an equally dim view of the Scott’s claim that the Climate Council encroaches on his executive powers. While 15 members of the council are appointed by the legislature, Diamond notes that it will be up to Scott's Agency of Natural Resources to implement the greenhouse gas emission reductions called for in the plan.

The law redefines Vermont's emission goals as mandates, requiring the state to make good on its various climate pledges. The state now must find a way to reduce carbon pollution to 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to hit more stringent benchmarks by 2030 and 2050. If it gets off track, as it is now, a judge could compel more aggressive action and regulations.

“Please know that if the Scott Administration decides to mount a constitutional challenge, the AGO will aggressively and dutifully defend [the law] and Vermont’s historic effort to combat global warming,” Diamond wrote.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

UVM Announces Plan to Eliminate More Than Two Dozen Academic Programs

Posted By and on Wed, Dec 2, 2020 at 9:02 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
Katherine Brennan, a 21-year-old religious studies major at the University of Vermont, checked her inbox Wednesday afternoon to find an ominous subject line: “Changes in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

The six-paragraph email announced that UVM would be eliminating more than two dozen of the college’s low enrollment academic programs to address a “substantial budget deficit.” The message arrived just before one of Brennan’s classes, which, ironically, she said, was on the importance of studying religion.

“My professor had to hold class after he had just been told that his job was theoretically on the line,” Brennan told Seven Days. “He was working through all of it just as we were. All of us were shocked.”

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Caller Threatened Vermont Elections Officials, Condos Says

Posted By on Wed, Dec 2, 2020 at 2:10 PM

Secretary of State Jim Condos - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Secretary of State Jim Condos
An unidentified caller has left at least three threatening and vulgar messages for members of Secretary of State Jim Condos' staff in recent weeks, according to Condos. One of the messages, directed toward a top Vermont elections administrator on Tuesday, accused the office of unspecified cheating and suggested that its members face a firing squad.

"If people want to take potshots at me, I get it. I'm elected," Condos said Wednesday. "But they shouldn't take pot shots at my staff or staff of elections officials across the state."

Condos' office first disclosed the threats on Twitter late Tuesday in a message amplifying remarks made earlier that day by Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling. At a press conference that quickly went viral, Sterling described the threats he and his colleagues had faced over their administration of the 2020 election and called on President Donald Trump and members of the U.S. Senate to tamp down their divisive rhetoric.
"It has to stop," Sterling said, adding, "Someone's going to get killed."

Condos echoed those remarks Wednesday. "It really has to stop," he said, accusing Trump of spreading conspiracy theories related to the election and encouraging dangerous rhetoric. "It starts at the top."

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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Pine and Tracy Make Their Pitches at Progressive Party Caucus

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 10:35 PM

Progressives Max Tracy (left) and Brian Pine - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Progressives Max Tracy (left) and Brian Pine
Updated on December 2, 2020.

Progressive Burlington City Councilors Brian Pine (Ward 3) and Max Tracy (Ward 2) each made their case to become the next mayor of Burlington during a caucus Tuesday night that otherwise featured few contested races.

Nearly 1,400 people registered for the party’s first-ever virtual caucus, which was streamed on Zoom and the party’s Facebook page. Both Pine and Tracy promised that if elected, they’d bring change to Burlington after nearly nine years of leadership under Mayor Miro Weinberger. The three-term Democrat is running for reelection and is expected to win his party’s nomination at its caucus on Sunday.

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As Virus Surges, Vermont Breaks Out Its Rapid-Test Stockpile

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 8:42 PM

Health Commissioner Mark Levine at Tuesday's press conference - SCREENSHOT/ORCA MEDIA
  • Screenshot/ORCA Media
  • Health Commissioner Mark Levine at Tuesday's press conference

State health officials have said for months that rapid-result antigen tests for COVID-19 are not as accurate as the PCR tests that must be processed in a lab. In settings with a low prevalence of the virus, the state has cautioned, the rapid tests can provide false results. 

Abbott's BinaxNOW rapid-result COVID-19 test - COURTESY: ABBOTT LABORATORIES
  • Courtesy: Abbott Laboratories
  • Abbott's BinaxNOW rapid-result COVID-19 test

That’s no longer the case in Vermont’s long-term-care facilities. As the virus surges in those settings, state officials are incorporating rapid tests into their monitoring strategy. The state will begin delivering Abbott BinaxNOW rapid tests to long-term-care homes, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at a press conference on Tuesday. 

The federal government, which is providing Vermont with 180,000 of these tests, began delivering batches to the state in early October. State officials had yet to distribute any of them. 

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Colchester Selectboard to Wear Masks Following Mix-Up

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 6:56 PM

Colchester selectboard members at their November 10 meeting - LAKE CHAMPLAIN ACCESS TELEVISION SCREENSHOT
  • Lake Champlain Access Television screenshot
  • Colchester selectboard members at their November 10 meeting
Members of the Colchester Selectboard have been holding in-person meetings for months without wearing masks — but not because they object to the state's COVID-19 rules.

Instead, town leaders believed Gov. Phil Scott's mask mandate didn't apply as long as selectboard members sat more than six feet apart.

In reality, the July order requires that masks be worn in all public venues, a state spokesperson said on Monday. 

The Colchester misunderstanding apparently went unnoticed until Seven Days contacted Town Manager Aaron Frank about the issue on Tuesday.

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Vermont Lawmakers Plan Remote Start to Legislative Session

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 2:01 PM

Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March
Updated at 3:42 p.m.

A recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Vermont has prompted state legislators to defer plans to hold at least a portion of the 2021 legislative session in person.

Members of the House Rules Committee voted last week for the chamber to meet remotely through January, and Senate leaders indicated on Tuesday that they would follow suit.

During a meeting of the legislature's Joint Rules Committee, which includes leaders of both bodies, lawmakers also agreed on Tuesday to scale back some of the opening ceremonies that typically mark the start of the two-year biennium — including the swearing-in of constitutional officers and the governor's inaugural address.

Though many details have yet to be worked out, the House currently plans to convene on January 6 at the Barre Municipal Auditorium. Legislators will be sworn in, elect a new speaker and clerk, and approve the rules of the House. The venue was chosen because it is among the largest in the state and can safely accommodate all 150 members of the House, even while social distancing. Nevertheless, members will be given the opportunity to participate remotely, outgoing House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said at Tuesday's meeting.

The 30-member Senate plans to meet in person at the Statehouse on the same day, according to outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Members will cycle through the Senate chamber to be sworn in and to elect their own officers.

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Friday, November 27, 2020

COVID-19 Cases Climb in Vermont's Long-Term Care Facilities

Posted By on Fri, Nov 27, 2020 at 2:50 PM

Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in the spring - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in the spring
Updated at 6:26 p.m.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Friday that Vermont will increase coronavirus testing at long-term care facilities in response to a worrisome number of recent outbreaks.

Speaking at Gov. Phil Scott's regular press briefing Friday, Levine said he was becoming "more and more concerned" about the growing number of cases at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which have proven to be particularly susceptible to major outbreaks. 

"This is causing more patient illnesses, hospitalizations and even deaths," he said, while also making it harder for facilities to maintain adequate staffing levels amid a nationwide shortage.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Burlington Council Votes to Divest From Fossil Fuel Companies

Posted By on Tue, Nov 24, 2020 at 12:39 AM

  • File
Burlington city councilors voted unanimously on Monday to divest the city's pension funds from fossil fuel companies and invest in more sustainable  industries.

Spearheaded by Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8), the resolution asks for the city to consider creating a "Burlington Green New Deal Investment Fund" to support the city's goal of becoming a net zero community by 2030.

Stromberg said the move combats the climate crisis and sets an example for other cities and towns.

"We need to step up, and we need to be brave," she said. "For some, this is long-awaited and overdue, and for others, this may be a new priority.  But the point is we have an incredible opportunity to lead the way."

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