The state is eyeing a major expansion of testing in K-12 schools as a way to reduce the number of students who must miss class to quarantine because of a possible COVID-19 exposure.
One of the programs, dubbed "test to stay," would provide a new option for unvaccinated students who had close contact with a person with COVID-19. Instead of quarantining for up to 14 days, these students would be offered rapid tests each day before entering school, until seven days after their last known exposure.
A similar program is in use in Massachusetts, Education Secretary Dan French said at the governor's weekly COVID-19 press briefing.
The state is still working out the logistics, French said, but he hopes to roll it out within the next several weeks. The Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday that its members were collaborating with state officials on the program's design.
School testing clinics are also in the works, as is a pilot take-home COVID-19 test program.
The state already funds weekly surveillance testing for schools, though many have not yet started their regimens, as they are overwhelmed by contact tracing work caused by the high prevalence of the Delta variant. Officials pitched the testing campaign as a preventative step that would lower the burden of contact tracing by avoiding school transmission. Last week, they urged schools with high vaccination rates to cease their contact tracing efforts.
The "test to stay" program is "going to be challenging to implement," French said, "but I think this is going to be the solution that really enables a lot more students to stay in the classroom, so we have to try to do the best we can."
Last week nearly 150 people were in K-12 schools during their so-called infectious period that begins 48 hours before they tested positive, according to the Vermont Health Department. Many more are asked to quarantine each week due to close contact with a positive case.
"This is valuable classroom time that's lost," Gov. Phil Scott said.
Booster shots begin
Slightly more than 2,000 eligible Vermonters have signed up for COVID-19 booster shots since the state opened registration to people 75 and older, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said.
Booster shots are only available for people who had the Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago; boosters for those who had Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots have not yet been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Those age 70 to 74 may begin scheduling appointments on Wednesday. Registration expands on Friday, October 1, to include people 65 and up, as well as those with high-risk health conditions, those who work in environments with elevated risk of COVID transmission, and those who live in congregate settings.
The state is taking a broad approach to the frontline worker category. Smith said people who work indoors where they are exposed to the public or fellow workers would be eligible October 1 if they had the Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago.
There are more than 70 vaccine clinics operating around the state that can administer first, second and booster doses, Smith said.
Case rates remain steady but elevated
Vermont recorded 1,448 cases last week — slightly fewer than the previous week and in line with regional trends, according to the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation.
But case rates remain elevated across the state, and especially in the Northeast Kingdom, which saw its rate more than double during September. Orleans County has the highest rate of any Vermont county, with nearly all new cases tied to community spread.
The 14-day average for new case rates among unvaccinated residents is more than four times as high as that for vaccinated residents. The hospitalization rate is three times higher for unvaccinated cases than vaccinated ones.
There are active outbreaks at 11 long-term care facilities totaling 177 infections, according to the Health Department. While the rate of death in long-term care facilities has decreased significantly due to the COVID-19 vaccine, residents remain among the most vulnerable to the Delta variant, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. They accounted for at least 30 percent of Vermont COVID-19 deaths between July 1 and September 8, he said.
Thirty-three people have died from COVID-19 in Vermont so far this month, making September the deadliest month of the pandemic since January, and nearly as deadly as the first wave in spring 2020, which killed 42 Vermonters over a four-month period.