Vermont officials tried to strike a cautious but optimistic tone at a press conference on Friday amid a rising number of coronavirus cases and good news on the vaccination front.
Two variants of the coronavirus have now been found in several Vermont counties, and the state’s infection rate has risen 85 percent since March 1. That rate is expected to keep rising until the end of the month.
Gov. Phil Scott said that he had planned to unveil on Friday a blueprint for reopening the state over the next three months, but he delayed the discussion until next week. Officials instead focused much of their COVID-19 briefing on the recent rise in cases.
On Wednesday, Vermont broke its record for daily new cases with 261. The previous record was 255, set on March 25.
Vermont's seven-day average of new cases per day hit a pandemic high of about 187 this week. And on Friday, the state reported 201 new cases and there were 35 people hospitalized with COVID-19; two were in intensive care. The state’s virus positivity rate is a relatively high — for Vermont — 2.2 percent.
Vermont is still one of the safest places in the country; for comparison, Idaho has the highest positivity rate in the nation at 28 percent. Massachusetts is at 2.6 percent and New Hampshire is at 4.2 percent.
"Everything looks as though it’s fairly stable,” Scott said of the COVID-19 infection rate. Nearly 90 percent of people ages 70 to 74 have been fully or partly vaccinated — the greatest proportion of any age group — and on Monday, those 40 and over will be able to register for their shots. On April 19, everyone over the age of 16 will be able to sign up.
“The approach we have taken will serve us well,” Scott said. He acknowledged that case numbers are rising regionally and in Vermont, with some of the highest numbers the state has seen since the pandemic began. But, he said, “I believe we’ll be able to tell a good story about the number of deaths and hospitalizations in Vermont."
About 39 percent of Vermonters have been at least partly vaccinated, and thousands more are expected to register in the coming weeks.
State officials have turned their attention to the rising infection rate among younger people. Numbers from the Department of Financial Regulation showed a spike in cases among those ages 18 to 24.
“Frankly, I am very concerned” about the rate seen now, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. The B.117 variant of the virus has been found in Chittenden, Franklin, Rutland, Caledonia and Windham counties, he said; the B.1429 strain has been found in Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle Counties.
While it’s well-known that COVID-19 tends to cause more serious symptoms in older people, Levine reiterated that there are cases involving young people who end up in the hospital or suffer long-term health problems as a result of the virus.
“I don’t say this to be an alarmist … but we know from a health standpoint it can be a significant problem,” he said. “We shouldn’t just assume it’s a benign condition.”
The heart of Vermont’s COVID-19 reduction strategy is vaccination, and on Friday, officials urged all Vermonters to get vaccinated. Levine recently traveled down to Bennington to talk to workers at the Vermont Veteran’s Home, where many staff members had declined the vaccine. As health care workers, they have been eligible for weeks and are not limited to the state’s age-banding structure.
“We’re not going to coerce them or twist their arm or lecture them about how wonderful the vaccine is,” Levine said.
After his visit, Levine said he was glad to hear that about a dozen workers were subsequently vaccinated. But the staff rate is still below 50 percent, “so we want to do better,” the health commissioner said.
In Essex County, another place where relatively few are taking advantage of the free vaccinations, the state plans to deploy nine mobile clinics. Officials will also coordinate with a health provider in Colebrook, N.H., to vaccinate Vermonters, said Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.
Teachers, school staff and childcare workers have been eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments since March 5. About 80 percent of school staff are now vaccinated, Education Secretary Dan French said.
The Agency of Education plans to soon release updated guidance on COVID-19 mitigation. Among other things, the agency will adopt federal health guidelines that set three feet as the minimum distance required between all students, no matter their age. It had previously been six feet for high school students.
“Now all students K through 12 will be under the same distancing standard,” French said.
The state opened registration on Thursday to all Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. By Friday, about 3,000 of these Vermonters and their household members had made appointments to be vaccinated, Smith said.