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Power from cow manure? Brattleboro mulls it over

BRATTLEBORO — After two hours of heated debate Tuesday, the selectboard delayed action on a recommendation that would boost the town’s renewable energy usage.

The Brattleboro Energy Committee has recommended that the town purchase 37 percent of its electricity for municipal operations from Cow Power — a program operated by the Colchester, Vt.-based Green Mountain Power that generates electricity from cow manure — at an estimated annual cost of $42,885.

The committee says the move would make the town’s sourcing of electricity carbon neutral and 100 percent renewable, which is in line with a goal voters set during Brattleboro’s 2018 town meeting.

The town is already purchasing its electricity from Green Mountain Power, the state’s main electric utility, said town Sustainability Coordinator Stephen Dotson. He explained in an email to The Sentinel that the electricity the town uses is already 63 percent renewable and the recommendation from the energy committee would push that to 100 percent.

However, during the selectboard’s meeting Tuesday night, held via teleconference, debate about the cost and whether the recommendation was simply a feel-good measure divided the four board members present. Instead of taking action on the recommendation, they decided to hold off until their next meeting to make a decision, to allow for more time to consider the recommendation.

Selectboard Chairman Tim Wessel said he’d like more information to find the best option for the town before moving forward.

“We’re not kicking it down the road, and we’re not denying anything,” said Selectboard Chairman Tim Wessel. “We are saying, ‘Hey staff, could you help us get to a sweet spot?’ so we can accept [the] recommendation.”

The Cow Power program uses manure from Vermont farms to produce electricity. The manure is placed in a digester, where it is turned into methane, which is used to power an electric generator. It’s an alternative to allowing the manure to break down naturally and release the methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.

Neither Wessel nor Selectwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin was enthusiastic about jumping on board with the energy committee’s recommendation. Wessel said he’s not a big fan of the Cow Power Program and that he feels it’s “just a vehicle to say, ‘I’m 100 percent renewable’.”

Meanwhile, McLoughlin raised concerns about the program’s cost, noting that $42,885 is a large amount of money. She pointed out that the recommendation suggested another option — but did not recommend it — that called for the town to spend less than $7,000 annually.

Dotson said in his email that the $7,000 option would just make the town’s electricity usage carbon neutral, while the $42,885 represents the investment needed to make it both carbon neutral and 100 percent renewable. He said the town’s total electricity costs were about $840,000 in 2019.

But Selectmen Daniel Quipp and Ian Goodnow were vocal in their support for the recommendation. Noting that “climate change is real,” Goodnow encouraged town officials to make Brattleboro a leader in combating it and said accepting the energy committee’s proposal was progress toward the goals set in 2018.

Dotson said that in 2018, town meeting members voted to ask the selectboard to “consider and pursue options related to renewable energy, carbon neutrality, and sourcing in-state, rather than out of state electricity.” He said that this is where the conversation started, but the goals were informal, so in 2020, the selectboard unanimously voted in favor of a resolution from the energy committee that aims to make town buildings entirely carbon neutral by 2050.

Quipp, who helped draft the non-binding 2018 goals, said that they were overwhelmingly approved by Brattleboro town meeting members, showing the community’s interest in the initiative. He called the Cow Power recommendation “a clear action” and “a good investment in our state.”

Toward the end of the meeting, energy committee Chairman Oscar Heller expressed disappointment with the selectboard’s decision. He said he put forth what he felt was the most economical proposal to accomplish the town’s goal but found it “crushing” that the recommendation was held up due to a question about how to get the price down even further. Wessel said the idea was not to delay but to be sure the board is choosing the best strategy for Brattleboro.

Quipp said that while he understands Heller’s concerns, he’s hoping the board can come back to the table in two weeks with a different mindset.

“I hope that when we come back to this in a couple of weeks’ time, we can think about this as an investment in renewable energy, as opposed to an expense,” he said.

Sununu pitches 'spectrum' of tax cuts to lawmakers in budget

Gov. Chris Sununu handed off his state budget to the House Finance Committee Wednesday, stressing what he called the plan’s “balance.”

Speaking to lawmakers via Zoom, Sununu was emphatic in pitching his budget as one that endeavors to keep more money in the pockets of all Granite Staters.

“What we’ve tried to do is not just create tax relief for businesses but for everyone,” Sununu said. “I really wanted to make sure we were covering the entire spectrum there.”

Sununu’s budget plan rests on a series of proposed tax cuts. He wants to drop the state Meals and Rooms tax, from 9 percent to 8.5 percent. He also wants to phase out the tax on interests and dividends. Dropping that tax, which in 2018 was paid by 53,000 people, will make New Hampshire more attractive to retirees, Sununu told lawmakers.

“That is just cash in their pockets,” he said.

Sununu is also proposing a cut to the Business Enterprise Tax, and wants limit its application to businesses with values topping $250,000. State revenue officials say that change will cut down on filers who paid little tax from having to file at all. In 2018, 74,000 businesses filed state tax returns; most paid no BET.

Sununu acknowledged that rate reductions will affect tax collections. But he argued that even taking a half a point of the rooms and meals tax will have an effect of consumer behavior.

“If people want to go out and get a meal it takes a little off the bill; it takes a little burden of the business,” he said.

He also said the recent bullish performance of state business taxes, taxes on real estate sales, tobacco tax receipts, and state liquor sales would offset any hit to state revenues.

Lawmakers said they looked forward to getting to work on the budget but had yet to receive the budget’s companion bill, where details on Sununu’s proposal will be spelled out.

“It’s very hard for the finance committee to proceed with their work until we get House Bill 2,” noted Mary Jane Waller, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

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Keene, Winchester nursing homes say their COVID outbreaks have ended
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The COVID-19 outbreaks at two local long-term care facilities are no longer considered active, after weeks of resident and staff infections, according to a spokeswoman.

No new cases of the viral disease or COVID-19-related deaths at Keene Center and Applewood Rehabilitation Center in Winchester — which are both owned by Genesis Healthcare — have been reported since early February. The outbreaks became inactive within the past week, according to Genesis spokeswoman Lori Mayer.

As of Wednesday, the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services said Keene Center was no longer on its list of active outbreaks, though Applewood still was. The state has said its data on nursing-home cases often lags behind what is reported by the facilities themselves.

Keene Center’s outbreak began in late December and infected 62 residents and 17 employees, according to Mayer. Twelve residents’ deaths are also linked to the outbreak, she said.

As of Jan. 11, the Court Street nursing home had about 80 residents and 115 staff members.

At Applewood, 18 residents and 11 staff members have tested positive since early January, and one resident died, Mayer said. The facility had 66 residents and 94 employees as of Jan. 29.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted by COVID-19 during this difficult time, especially the families of those residents who passed away,” she said in an email.

Long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic because the virus is known to travel quickly through congregate-living settings, according to health officials. This is due to the proximity of residents, many of whom have underlying health conditions.

To prevent future outbreaks, Mayer said Genesis facilities have been adhering to strict safety protocols, including daily COVID-19 testing, restricting visitation, screening residents for symptoms three times daily and taking staff members’ temperatures upon entering the building.

All outside medical appointments, except those that are necessary, have also been canceled, she added.

Additionally, residents and staff of Keene Center and Applewood began receiving COVID-19 vaccines on Dec. 30 through a partnership with CVS Pharmacy.

As of last week, 71 percent of employees at Keene Center and 79 percent of employees at Applewood had received a first dose of vaccine, according to data provided by Genesis.

Ninety-one percent of Keene Center residents and 89 percent at Applewood had been given the first dose as of last week.

Amid a pandemic, US life expectancy falls by a year

Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak, according to government data released Thursday.

The last time life expectancy at birth dropped more dramatically was during World War II. Americans can now expect to live as long as they did in 2006, according to the provisional data released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black and Latino Americans were hit harder than whites, reflecting the racial disparities of the pandemic, according to the new analysis. Black Americans lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos lost 1.9. White life expectancy fell 0.8 years.

“It’s pretty jolting,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, who is compiling the same data for all of 2020. “This is a huge impact.”

Life expectancy at birth, considered a reliable barometer of a nation’s health, has risen steadily in the United States since the middle of the 20th century, with small annual decreases in recent years caused mainly by “diseases of despair” — drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide. Flat and modestly declining life expectancy from 2015 to 2017 caused considerable concern among public health experts after decades of progress against heart disease, cancer and other maladies.

In 2019, life expectancy ticked back up as the number of fatal drug overdoses dropped slightly for the first time in 28 years.

The only good news in the new report is that life expectancy typically bounces back quickly, because of the way it is calculated. Experts said that when the United States quells the pandemic, they expect this to occur.

Overall, the NCHS data shows, life expectancy at birth for the entire U.S. population in the first half of 2020 was 77.8 years. For Black Americans, it was 72, for Latinos 79.9, and for whites 78. As has long been the case, women could expect to live longer — 80.5 years, compared with 75.1 for men. The NCHS did not include figures for Asian Americans or other racial groups.

With the United States approaching 500,000 deaths from the pandemic alone, experts were not surprised by the new data. But they said the size of the reduction in life expectancy, particularly for Black and Latino Americans, was greater than expected.

“This is a big departure. We haven’t seen anything this large since the first half of the 20th century, when infectious disease was much more common,” said Elizabeth Arias, a health scientist for the NCHS and lead author of the paper.

The difference between white and minority drops in life expectancy caused the most alarm.

“Those are very large disparities, and it reflects that the pandemic affected these two minority groups much more than the majority population,” Arias said. “So they experienced the bulk of the mortality.”

The coronavirus has devastated communities of color across the country. Some have high populations of essential workers who cannot avoid the virus in their jobs or who live in multigenerational homes. Black and Latino Americans are more likely to have poorer access to health care, including coronavirus testing, and have underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, that increase their vulnerability to COVID-19.

Data in the new study also comes from the first six months of 2020, when the virus did its worst damage in a surge through the Northeast, home to large Black and Latino populations. Second and third surges swept wider swaths of the United States. Arias said that when her team examines a full year of data, she expects it will show a greater proportion of white deaths.

The data also reflects an increased death total from other causes, such as strokes and drug overdoses, that are part of the pandemic’s collateral damage. In the early months of 2020, some seriously ill people delayed seeking health care out of fear of the new and lethal virus.

In an October study, the CDC estimated that perhaps a third of these “excess deaths” — the number of deaths greater than would be expected in a typical year — were caused by factors other than COVID-19.

“There is nothing good to be said,” said Anne Case, the Princeton economics professor who coined the term “deaths of despair” with her husband, Princeton economist Angus Deaton. “In addition to COVID, we know that the drug epidemic continues to surge, as well.”

In December, the CDC reported that the number of overdose deaths exceeded 81,000 in the year that ended in May 2020. That was the largest number ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Other researchers have reached conclusions similar to the CDC’s. In a Feb. 2 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at data for all of 2020, Theresa Andrasfay of the University of Southern California and Noreen Goldman of Princeton estimated that U.S. life expectancy would fall by 1.13 years as a result of the pandemic. Black and Latino Americans would suffer reductions three to four times greater than white Americans, they said.

“Consequently, COVID-19 is expected to reverse over 10 [years] of progress made in closing the Black-White gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70 percent,” they wrote.

In a separate examination, a team led by Spanish researcher Héctor Pifarré i Arolas concluded that the number of years of life lost to COVID-19 in the United States would be five times greater than the number lost to the worst flu season of the past two decades.