Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing resident Elsie Johnson gets vaccinated.
Updated at 3:56 p.m.
Vermont will begin offering the COVID-19 vaccine to people ages 75 and older starting the week of January 25, officials said at a press conference Friday, unveiling the next phase of the state's highly anticipated vaccination plan.
But officials stressed that the vaccine rollout remains hampered by limited supply, noting Vermont continues to receive only about 8,800 vaccine doses from the federal government each week — far less than initial projections.
“We know many are anxiously waiting for their vaccines — and rightfully so," Gov. Phil Scott said. "We want to get every dose out just as quickly as we possibly can. But with so few doses available, we need everyone to be patient.”
The Trump administration raised hopes for expanded access earlier this week in announcing that it would release all doses of available vaccine rather than hold a second dose for those in early phases (both authorized vaccines are two-dose regimens). But the Washington Post reported on Friday that the administration had already begun shipping out reserves last month, dashing hopes of a windfall.
Vermont officials say they are now planning to proceed with the current supply chain, which should allow them to vaccinate the 49,000 or so Vermonters aged 75 or older in about six weeks.
The state will then continue vaccinating the population based on age — moving next to those 70 and older, then to 65 and older — in hopes of vaccinating those groups by the end of winter before prioritizing Vermonters with chronic health conditions. Those include cancer, kidney disease, emphysema, severe obesity, pregnancy, diabetes, Down syndrome, sickle cell anemia and various heart conditions.
Officials reiterated that the vast majority of deaths and hospitalizations have been in Vermont’s older population, so prioritizing vaccines for that group will ease the burden on the state’s health care system and keep more people alive.
“We believe this is the simplest and easiest to understand — as well as the most efficient and effective — way to vaccinate Vermonters more quickly,” Scott said.
Most of the vaccines will be distributed through a network of state-run clinics, in partnership with health care providers and pharmacies, while EMS and home care agencies will collaborate to vaccinate people who are homebound.
Qualified Vermonters will be able to register online or by phone starting January 25, with more information about the registration process expected in the coming days.
The state has contracted with an outside company to run its reservation call center. Officials said they expect 200 people to answer phones initially, with the potential to eventually double that workforce. Still, expecting an initial crush of calls, officials said people should register online whenever possible.
"We are going to need children or grandchildren or other relatives to help their older loved ones use the online tool as much as possible to keep our call centers from being overwhelmed," Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said.
He added that the state will learn from any inevitable “bumps” early on.
“If we make mistakes, we’ll own them,” he said. “And every step of the way, we will be focused on making the process easier, smoother and faster for Vermonters.”
Once people schedule an appointment, it is important that they keep it, Smith said, since shots must be administered within six hours of reaching room temperature. The state is now working to establish a call-back process to fill in for cancelations and avoid wasting doses.
Smith expected people will be able to schedule their second shot at the same appointment that they receive their first dose.
“We will continue to follow closely how the federal government is handling allocations and do everything we can to make sure we have a supply for second vaccine doses while we move through the initial process,” he said.
Friday's announcement comes exactly a month after Vermont administered its first vaccine as part of an initial rollout phase focused on health care workers, emergency responders and residents of eldercare homes.
The state of the pandemic has worsened since then. Vermont, which did not report its 2,000th coronavirus case until mid-October, has now identified more than 2,000 infections over the last two weeks. The state will likely surpass the 10,000-case mark within the next few days, while its death total climbed to 163 on Friday.
State officials said nearly 30,000 people have received at least one vaccine dose so far, including everyone living in skilled-nursing facilities who wanted it. All assisted- and residential-living facilities are also expected to receive their first dose by the end of the month.
“What we really need is greater quantities of vaccine in the weeks ahead so that we can speed up our efforts,” Smith said. “But we want to set appropriate expectations and communicate clearly where we are and what we expect to avoid the frustration and disappointment we’ve seen in other states.”
“The more doses we get,” he added, “the faster we can end this pandemic.”