Health Care

Vermont’s Covid pandemic expected to surge 50% in next six weeks

Members of the Vermont Army National Guard don PPE at a pop-up Covid-19 testing site at the armory in Winooski on Monday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The number of Covid cases in Vermont is forecasted to rise around 50% in the next six weeks, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

The state has had a dramatic rise in cases in recent weeks, going from 198 cases for the week of Nov. 9 to 593 cases in the week of Nov. 16, according to a presentation by Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. State officials said that rise will continue despite recent restrictions on social gatherings and more.

“Our actions today, our actions tomorrow will determine what in our case counts look like, what in fact our hospitalizations look like and how safe we keep ourselves and our communities,” Pieciak said.

The current rise has been linked to social gatherings and outbreaks at colleges, nursing homes and recreational sports, particularly in Washington and Orange counties. Pieciak showed data that suggested that a “Halloween surge” came from people gathering on Halloween.

Vermont currently has the second-highest “reproduction rate” in the nation, behind only Maine. The reproduction rate, also referred to as Rt, shows how fast cases are spreading in a community.

It took 88 days for Vermont to add its first 1,000 cases of Covid, and 142 days for the next 1,000 cases. It just took 23 days to add its most recent 1,000 cases, Pieciak said.

Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said the department is monitoring more than 150 different “situations,” roughly defined as anytime the state has found Covid involving multiple contacts.

Communities have the option to implement more stringent measures, and some have begun to take them, Levine said. Some municipalities have closed or considered closing their town offices and sending their workers home.

Gov. Phil Scott cited the number of social gathering-related cases as justification for last week’s limit on those gatherings. He said on Friday that 71% of cases since Oct. 1 were linked to gatherings. 

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“It’s mostly adults, from multiple households, getting together with friends, inside and outside. And it usually involves alcohol and food, with little, if any, mask wearing,” he said. “This led directly to our record growth.”

He said he is angry with the virus, and “frustrated with those who don’t believe that we can mitigate this.”

Vermont has what it takes to overcome this, he said: “We need to step up.”

Levine read the words of one of the department’s contact tracers, who told Vermonters to continue to avoid close encounters with others if they wanted to avoid a call from the state. 

“‘Some people need to be in close contact with others: Health care providers and teachers, because those are the services and supports our society needs to get through this,’” he quoted. “We don’t actually need bars; we might want bars, but we don’t need them. … We need our health care system to stay afloat, for our children to have access for an equitable education.’”

Forecasting health care needs

The nation’s data parallels Vermont’s recent peak. There have been a million more cases nationwide this week, with hospitalizations and deaths starting to reach new records as well, Pieciak said.

That rise in cases in Vermont has also led to a rise in hospitalizations. Seventeen people are currently hospitalized for the virus, down from a high of 21 but higher than it has been in recent weeks. 

Vermont predicts a peak of roughly 40-50 people hospitalized for the virus, Pieciak said, including about 10 people in the ICU. 

He said the data indicates that hospital and ICU needs should remain within the state’s capacity for beds. The state has a “buffer” of 40 open ICU beds, leaving room for the predicted increase in ICU needs.

The state also recently reopened several surge sites, increasing the state’s total hospital beds by 250 in the next few weeks. Those sites, run by the National Guard, are intended to ease the burden on hospitals and aren’t specifically intended to house Covid patients.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the state had a reserve of ventilators and personal protective equipment, although there is concern about the supply of N95 masks and nitrile gloves if the current burn rate increases.

Levine said another reason for optimism is the medical system’s improving track record treating cases and reducing the need for ICU beds and ventilators. “We know so much more about people who are in the hospital,” he said.

The state also has an emergency authorization to use monoclonal antibodies for treatment, he said.

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Erin Petenko

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