Gov. Phil Scott and his administration are closely following the news about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has been detected in several countries — including Canada — but not yet in the United States.
"We’re all independently monitoring this and watching the moves other countries are making," said Michael Pieciak, who handles COVID-19 modeling for the state and serves as commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. "We’re all kind of waiting for more information."
Reports about Omicron, the newly identified variant of the virus, started circulating widely on Friday after it was detected in Britain and several countries in southern Africa. Among the concerns are the potential high transmissibility of the new strain and the possibility it can evade the vaccines now in use. Much is unknown, including the severity of disease it causes, and researchers are rushing to investigate the threat. The World Health Organization has called Omicron a "variant of concern," its most serious classification.
The U.S. will close its borders on Monday to travelers from eight countries in southern Africa, and New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency on Friday.
"We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it's coming," Hochul said in a statement.
Pieciak said on Sunday that state officials will be watching infection numbers closely to see if they rose during the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Statewide hospitalization numbers over the holiday have remained steady at around 50, Pieciak said.
Vermont is struggling to quell a surge of the Delta variant of the virus, which surfaced this summer. On Sunday, the state, which earlier in the year won accolades for its COVID-19 response and high vaccination rates, was No. 5 on the New York Times’ list of virus hotspots, with a 3 percent increase in average case numbers in the last 14 days.
The state’s case dashboard, which hasn’t been updated since Wednesday, reports a positivity rate of 3.8 percent. The dashboard, though, carried a warning that with the state averaging 400 cases per day, it might report as many as 2,000 cases from the holiday period when it updates its numbers on Monday.
In a statement Monday, Health Commissioner Mark Levine reiterated his call for vaccines and booster shots as the "best defense against COVID-19."
"Research over the next few weeks will determine whether Omicron will affect the severity of illnesses, and how effective the current vaccines are against Omicron," he wrote. "The Health Department continues to obtain genomic sequencing information on SARS-CoV-2 specimens and will report any detection of the Omicron variant in Vermont."
Members of the legislature’s Joint Rules Committee have been working on a plan for safely reopening the Statehouse in January. Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham), who is vice chair of that committee, said Sunday the panel will discuss requiring proof of vaccination for every person who enters the building, along with rapid testing and a mask requirement.
The committee has been sharply divided, especially on the issue of a vaccine requirement, Balint said. Its decision could have a big impact on governance. While the public will be able to participate in hearings using Zoom, as it did last year, lawmakers must be present in order to cast a vote.
“If we make a decision that you must be vaccinated in order to get into the building, and someone who is duly elected and is not able to participate in a vote, that’s a very serious concern,” Balint said. “We can’t just make a blanket rule without realizing how that may impact a district or their House member or senator.”
Balint said lawmakers were notified that someone who entered the building last week later tested positive for the virus. They were not given any more details.
She sees the latest variant as part of a continuum of COVID-19-related problems, not a distinct event that requires a different response — at least not yet.
“It doesn’t fundamentally change things,” she said. “We’re seeing [the Delta variant] now in folks who are vaccinated, so I don’t necessarily see it as a difference. It’s just more bad news.”
This fall, Balint and others pushed hard for Scott to impose a statewide mask mandate. Scott eventually agreed to sign a bill that would allow individual municipalities to pass mandates, something Balint's hometown of Brattleboro had sought to do.
Scott signed the bill last week. Brattleboro has since passed a mandate, and Burlington officials are meeting on Wednesday to discuss one of their own.
Hospitality businesses that rely on visitors this winter are also closely tracking news of the Omicron variant. Carina Hellstrom, who owns the Gray Ghost Inn in West Dover, said she’ll follow whatever rules the state issues. The 27-room inn, which was closed during November — as it is every year — has robust bookings for December, she said.
“I don’t think we need to hit the panic button,” Hellstrom said. “We just need to be mindful and wear masks when we can, get vaccinated, get the booster shots, and wash our hands.”
Pieciak noted that many other variants have emerged since the pandemic began in March 2020. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists several variants "of concern," "of interest," or "of consequence" that have emerged and circulated. The highly transmissible Delta variant has been the most significant in the U.S., causing an unexpected spike of cases in mid-summer that has yet to abate in Vermont.
But “we’ve had other variants that have been hyped that have ended up not having much of an impact at all,” Pieciak said, citing the B.1.1.7 variant, which emerged in England in September 2020 and briefly captured media attention. “We have to take it seriously and wait and see what the information is about transmissibility, about symptoms, about the ability to evade vaccines. Those are all unknowns at this point.”
Correction, November 30, 2021: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Balint's position on town-by-town mask mandates.