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Push to reimpose emergency

MONTPELIER — State legislators have called on the governor to reinstate the COVID-19 state of emergency order.

Lawmakers were joined by medical professionals at the State House on Monday to urge Gov. Phil Scott to reinstate the declaration in order to allow for an increase in statewide mitigation strategies, arguing that his vaccine-only strategy isn’t working against the highly transmissible delta variant.

In particular, lawmakers are requesting that Scott reimpose the state of emergency in order to allow for the reintroduction of a universal indoor mask mandate, increased state-funded staffing for contact tracers, increased health care and social work staff in schools and expanded motel voucher rules to provide shelter for anyone who has been unhoused during the pandemic.

“I’m here today to implore our state leaders to use their personal responsibility to do more to keep our unvaccinated children safe and mitigate the extraordinary challenges being faced by our schools and families,” said Rep. Erin Brady, D-Williston.

Brady, who is also a parent, teacher and school board member, said her town has been in “crisis” since September.

“We have had relentless quarantines of classes in Williston, and disruption and instability have become the status quo,” she said, adding that her own children recently contracted COVID, which she said most likely occurred at school.

Last weekend, Vermont reported 345 new cases of COVID — the highest single-day number to date.

On Monday, the state reported 140 new cases, with 47 hospitalizations, including 13 people in intensive care.

Children, who did not experience high infection rates earlier in the pandemic, now represent 24% of Vermont’s cases.

According to the latest state data, rates of COVID are currently highest among children up to age 11, with 43 cases per 10,000.

On Oct. 18, 125 cases were reported in K-12 schools in the previous seven days for a total of 978 cases since schools reopened this fall.

Kelly Landwehr, lead nurse and COVID coordinator in the Addison Central School District, said the state did not provide the same level of guidance going into the current school year, calling it “a far cry from the 25 pages of thoughtful, comprehensive guidance we received a year prior.”

Heading into the new school year, the Agency of Education released a two-page memo advising K-12 school districts to require universal masking for the first 10 instructional days of the school year while student vaccination rates were determined.

As cases began to rise, Scott amended his mask recommendations — first advising schools keep universal masking in place through Oct. 4 and, then, extending the recommendation to Nov. 1.

While anti-mask opposition has bubbled up in some school communities, all but one (Canaan) chose to adopt some version of the AOE’s guidance. Some have gone further, implementing indefinite universal masking for all grades and requiring staff to get vaccinated.

But absent an emergency declaration, local school districts have had to enforce masking on their own.

Becca McCray, president of Vermont State School Nurses Association, acknowledged that the administration has been listening to concerns in recent weeks — noting revised contact tracing guidance released last week — however, she said school leaders still need more support.

She argued that leaving decisions, such as masking, to be made at the local level rather than having a definitive, state-endorsed policy, creates uncertainty.

“Without the power of leverage that comes with the state of emergency, schools struggle to enforce COVID health and safety guidelines,” she said.

McCray said that school nurses are overwhelmed, exhausted and “at their breaking point,” adding that many are either considering leaving their jobs or have already done so.

“We cannot afford to lose school nurses right now,” she said.

Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College, called the impacts the delta variant has had on the state — such as the highest single-day case count and highest seven-day rolling average — “preventable and predictable.”

Sosin called on the governor to remember his “follow the science” mantra from earlier in the pandemic and step up mitigation of the virus.

“We don’t need to return to a lockdown, close our restaurants or bars or cancel Christmas, as Gov. Scott suggested in a recent press conference. However, we do need to return to an evidence-based approach to managing the pandemic,” she said.

Specifically, Sosin called for a data-driven mask policy to buy time until children younger than 12 can be vaccinated.

“We have the policy tools to protect the health and education of Vermont children until they can be vaccinated. It is past time Gov. Scott makes the choice to use them,” she said.

Scott first declared the state of emergency in March 2020 in an effort to curb the spread of COVID. The order included advising residents to quarantine at home, restricting large gatherings, limiting out-of-state travel, prohibiting businesses from in-person operations and issuing a statewide mask mandate.

In June, he lifted the order’s final restrictions, after 80% of the state’s eligible population had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

But as delta has surged this fall, the governor has resisted calls to reimpose restrictions, such as a mask mandate, which requires a state of emergency order.

“We’re not in the same place we were six months ago,” he said at a Sept. 21 press conference. “And neither are Vermonters who have been reevaluating their risk because of the vaccine. And we simply can’t be in a perpetual state of emergency. It sets a dangerous precedent and would be an abuse of my authority.”

In an email sent Monday afternoon, Scott administration representative Jason Maulucci noted that Vermont continues to be a national leader in its vaccination efforts.

“As a result, even throughout the delta wave, Vermont consistently has had one of the lowest fatality and hospitalization rates in the country. We’ve also had among the lowest test positivity rates throughout, as well,” he stated.

“If the governor believed state mandates were needed, he would implement them,” Maulucci wrote. “But the fact is, declaring a state of emergency after nearly 20 months of experience with this virus and reimposing broad restrictions and closures is not something Vermonters would accept nor follow.”

Instead of mandates, Maulucci stated that the governor will continue to encourage Vermonters to get vaccinated, get their booster shots, make smart choices and take steps to protect vulnerable populations, adding that “he is not going to force them backwards.”



Town road commissioner
Town road commissioner set to retire

RUTLAND TOWN — After 21 years as road commissioner, Byron Hathaway is getting done in January.

Hathaway said Monday that the job has changed quite a bit since was elected in 2000, and will likely continue to evolve.

When Hathaway started as road commissioner, the terms were for a single year. Voters later changed it to three. Hathaway has suggested to the Select Board that it give voters the option to make the position appointed, thereby allowing it to recruit from outside Rutland Town. He said people with the necessary engineering, communication and administrative skills are difficult to find.

Hathaway, 68, was a dairy farmer with his parents and brother up until 1986.

“At that time, we went on the government’s whole-herd buyout program and essentially went out of business,” he said. “We subdivided a portion of the farm and created 16 building lots. My brother went into the home-building business, I went into the excavating business and I did that from the fall of ’86 to 2000.”

It was in 2000 with the retirement of Road Commissioner Marshall Fish that Hathaway saw an opportunity. He’d been working on and off for Fish for several years and knew the town’s roads. His sons opted not to follow him in the excavating business, and faced with the need for expensive reinvestments in equipment, he decided to run for the town job.

“Tony Flory ran against me that year, in 2000,” said Hathaway. “He said, ‘Well, I just want to keep you honest.’ So we had a little campaigning, I won, and I’ve been elected ever since then. That was the only time I’ve had to run against anyone.”

When he started, the job was mostly a hands-on position. Throughout the course of two decades, between Agency of Transportation (AOT) requirements and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) events, at least half of it is now administrative work.

Some of these changes were brought about by Hathaway himself.

“I’ve started writing things down,” he said. “Marshall had all the stuff in his head, that’s gone. For instance I’ve started putting together a little bit of a packet here to give to the next guy. Here’s a list of all the town roads and what year we paved them so we can have some idea of how long a road has been paved. We’ve got some roads that are going to last 15 or 20 years, others need to be paved a little more often just because of heavy traffic and that sort of thing.”

One of his early moves was to spend $900 from a miscellaneous account on a used laptop for the highway department. He was scolded by the Select Board for this, but 20 years later, FEMA only works through digital records and state officials only respond through email.

“So I started computerizing things, paving bids and things like that,” Hathaway said. “You can look back and see the various different paving bids for quite a number of years. I started tracking our salt use, and I’ve got a lot of data accumulated on that. We ended up putting scales on the loader to be able to weigh every load that goes out, so I know where the salt is going.”

Better record keeping had led the town to use 1,500 tons of salt per year versus the previous 3,000. Hathaway said at $60 a ton, that’s a large sum of money being saved.

The highway garage itself came to be under Hathaway’s tenure. The project began on paper in 2003 and didn’t break ground until 2015.

“When I came on, there was nothing. Marshall Fish had shovels and that kind of stuff all stored at his place, and I had to move that stuff from his place to my place. I cleaned out a couple of stalls in my old free-style barn and that’s where we stored our stuff,” he said.

Walt Tripp, a Rutland Town Highway Department employee of 30 years, took his lunches in his truck, according to Hathaway.

“That’s not a workplace, you know?” he said.

The summer he was elected, Hathaway and the crew took a corner of the salt shed, which had electrical and telephone service, and used concrete blocks to rig up a small office space where they could do paperwork and store equipment. Several concrete blocks were used to keep the salt from caving in a wall. It may have violated a few safety regulations, said Hathaway, but at least there was a water bucket where the crew could wash their hands after using the portable toilet.

In 2003, voters approved $20,000 for a scoping study on a new garage.

“We got it all permitted, and it was a good thing, but then they wouldn’t let me build it,” Hathaway said. “So it sat until we had a change of personnel on the Select Board.”

The town eventually secured funds for the new facility, which now sits in Northwood Park.

“It’s been a nice place to keep our stuff,” said Hathaway. “You’ve got a place to drive a truck under cover, and thaw it out. Before that we were storing the truck in the salt shed; the loader was always in the salt shed. That loader had never seen anything but a salt shed for most of its life, it got washed once in the spring. The little town truck we had, I was driving that home and keeping it at my house.”

After former Town Administrator Joseph Zingale left in 2017, the highway department took on water and sewer duties. This was on top of sidewalk plowing, which had largely been contracted to the city. Hathaway said he was able to grow into these roles and responsibilities over time, but whoever fills his shoes next will have a great deal to manage.

One of Hathaway’s best learning experiences turned out to be among his disappointments.

In his second year as road commissioner, a group of residents came to him to see about refurbishing the covered bridge by East Creek. Doing so would require state grant money. Hathaway said he applied for the funds and was denied. He asked someone from the state why, and was given some pointers on what the AOT is looking for in grant applications.

“I sat down the next year and rewrote the entire grant by myself, up there in that little hole in the wall, and I sent it in and I got a grant for $20,000 to do the scoping study on that bridge,” he said. “I turned right around the next year, wrote another grant for the actual construction and refurbishing of the bridge and was awarded a grant for $350,000. And the selectmen turned it down.”

The town’s match on the grant would have been $35,000, he said. The covered bridge, built just before 1850, would have become what’s now called a pocket park.

“The old people in town that had used that bridge, had grown up with that bridge, could have had that to have looked at and reminisced about; most of them are all gone now, and the old bridge still sits there. It’s right beside the road by East Creek. It looks like an old barn, but it’s not.”

The bridge itself had a twin, built after the river rerouted and washed away in 1947 when the Chittenden Dam failed and took with it East Pittsford Pond.

The experience taught Hathaway much about the paper side of his business, which would become more important as floods and related disasters required FEMA money to address.

“My first FEMA event was in 2000. We had a big, heavy rain storm in December and the flashboards on Glenn Dam broke and flooded Route 7,” he said. “It was Sunday, nobody was around except John Flory, and we had 2 feet of water underneath the traffic light down there at the Post Road intersection, and cars were hitting that at 50 mph.”

He decided to close Route 7, fearing for motorists’ safety.

“Well, apparently, the only person that can close a state highway is the governor. So, I found that out,” said Hathaway. “Anyways, we survived that, and we got FEMA money.”

He said that every three to five years he’s had to deal with FEMA about something, and the federal entity has steadily become more particular about documentation.

“The next one was a snow event,” Hathaway said, referring to a storm sometime in 2004. “It happened right around Town Meeting Day. There was snow, we plowed our snow, they came and paid us for plowing snow for that event. That was really weird.”

He also recalls the “nor’icane” of 2007, a storm combining elements of a hurricane and a nor’easter. The road crew had plowed snow the night before. Hathaway got up early to check on the roads. The wind began blowing, he got a call around 4 a.m. about a tree blocking East Pittsford Road.

“I climbed into the loader and pushed it out of the way, and I never got out of that loader until 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “It was just one call after another, trees coming down everywhere.”

While Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 caused enough damage statewide to be remembered for decades, Rutland Town itself was largely spared, sustaining about $20,000 in damages.

“The biggest thing was the Route 7-Post Road intersection,” he said. “That’s right in the floodplain and the floodplain is 3 feet higher than the road down there, so that whole thing floods. And the mud, my God, the mud that was down there, that was the biggest cleanup, was the mud.”

Hathaway said his retirement comes at a good time, since winter work largely revolves around maintenance, giving the newcomer time to get their head around upcoming projects and learn the job.

He said he’d been toying with the idea of retiring for a few years now. A town official talked him into running for this term.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into a decision,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m as effective as I want to be, just because I’m 68 years old now. Talk to anybody this age, and they’ll tell you we can still do things, we just don’t do them as fast as we used to do them, you know? And maybe we’re not quite as effective. I don’t want to leave this job with people thinking, ‘Jesus, he should have retired six years ago,’ that kind of thing.”

He said there were a few executive sessions with the Select Board that left him feeling like it might be time to move on, and then came the death of his brother, Gene Hathaway, last year.

“He just got nailed with leukemia, and boom, in 100 days he was gone. That kind of gets you thinking, it started the whole process,” said Hathaway.

His thinking led him to notice that his work on the road crew was coming at the expense of his family and home life.

“This highway department, I’ve got to get away from that, I’ve got some stuff at home I want to get done while I’m still healthy,” he said.

Soon, his grandchildren will be old enough to drive a tractor, and Hathaway wants to be the one to teach them.



Back to the Wild: Rescued opossums set free Saturday

Four orphaned opossums, raised for the past seven weeks by a licensed Starksboro wildlife rehabber, were released back into the wild Saturday — but not before helping provide four interesting lessons.

My wife and I rescued them Sept. 4 after their mom got hit by a car, and they’ve been under the care of Medora Plimpton and her intern Maggie at Howling Mountain Wildlife Refuge ever since. Hundreds of hours of feeding, cleaning and introducing them to the natural world later, Plimpton released them back into nature.

Set free on hundreds of acres of land with few roads, plentiful water and lots of food sources, they took a few minutes to leave the small kennel used to transport them, but within minutes they were exploring their new world, catching bugs and eating cherry tomatoes growing in a small garden. They couldn’t have asked for a better place to forage or look for a den.

All four, three females and a male we affectionately took to calling “Runt” because he was the smallest and in tribute to a friend who bears that nickname, had grown from barely an ounce to more than a pound since I removed them from their mom’s pouch. Bigger still were the lessons the quartet helped impart.

Lesson 1: How you look at something has a lot to do with how you see things.

Ask just about anyone to describe an opossum, and the word “ugly” is likely to be part of their answer. They’ve got naked tails, pointy snouts, black eyes and more teeth — 50 — than any other mammal in North America.

One Facebook writer pretty much summed up people’s preconceived notions on opossum beauty: “It’s pretty hard to make these guys look this adorable,” she wrote.

When I got down on the ground to remove the babies from their mom’s pouch, I was up close and at eye-level with them, and that’s how I photographed them during the past seven weeks. By getting down, or up, depending on where they were, to their level so we could look one another in the eye, I viewed and saw them differently.

The consensus of hundreds of Facebook comments since: “They’re adorable!” Nanci Gordon insisted one of them was so cute, it couldn’t be real; it had to be a Muppet!

Lesson 2: A little help can make a huge difference for those around us.

Runt was about 20% smaller than his sisters when rescued, and the difference didn’t change much in the past 49 days. Normally, the babies would have been riding around in their mom’s pouch or on her back for many more weeks when she died.

While his sisters grew fast and quickly developed traits of independence, Runt seemed a little scared and insecure, and he leaned on the girls for help. Runt latched on and tried to ride his sisters as if they were his mom, and though it’s impossible to know what he or they were thinking, it looked like he was getting some needed support. Now he looks ready to take on the world.

Lesson 3: Different abilities and ways of doing things can provide great value.

Since delivering the babies to Plimpton, I’ve visited them virtually every week to photograph them, and watch them explore her yard. They’ve just been doing what opossums do — climbing, catching bugs, eating, and snuggling together — but in watching them, I’ve been reminded that everyone and everything has some special skill or value, a fact I forget too often.

Except for their appetite for ticks, opossums aren’t greatly valued by humans the way we revere, say, eagles or lions. But watch an opossum climb — using four paws, four “thumbs,” their mouth and a tail that is used like a hand — and you’ll see one of the most agile creatures on the planet and gain a new appreciation. And they eat a lot of ticks!

Lesson 4: When life doesn’t go as planned, making the best of it can bring unexpected joy.

This whole thing started with plans for a run and an afternoon of tailgating and football, which were set aside when I found the orphans and their mom. I thought my day was ruined, and I was a little frustrated when I realized I’d have to drive 80 minutes each way to deliver the babies to Plimpton in Starksboro.

I thought that’s where my role in this story would end. Instead, I met a woman and her husband who generously devoted countless hours to helping orphaned animals of all kinds. I became emotionally attached to the opossums by the time I got there. And hundreds of people, including dozens who contributed to the refuge, created a social media banquet of positivity and joy, all centered around four little lives. People’s enjoyment of the ongoing story multiplied my own.

As I watched Plimpton release the siblings, and they made the transition back to their world, two thoughts crossed my mind almost simultaneously. I wondered if they had any sense of how lucky they were to have landed in her care, and I gave a quiet thank you to the universe for giving me a seven-week gift I’ll enjoy every time I think of it.

Steve Costello of Rutland Town is an avid wildlife photographer.


Playoff time

High school playoff pairings have been released, giving a road map to the upcoming state championships. B1

MR tops Poultney

Mill River grabbed its third win in the last four games, besting rival Poultney 26-18 Saturday afternoon. B4