Health Care

FAQ LIVE: Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan on Vermont’s vaccine rollout

With the state’s vaccination campaign well underway, many Vermonters still have urgent questions about the distribution process, access and what will happen next.

Vermont’s Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan will join us for an FAQ Live event to answer reader questions about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3.

Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Anne Galloway: Can you give us an overview of where we are now? 

Tracy Dolan: Vermonters are doing great. We've already vaccinated about 100,000 Vermonters, at least with a first dose. That's a big number. We had great turnout for 75-plus, 70-plus, and now we've opened up 65 and older. 

Overall in Vermont, our percent positivity — the number of people who are positive among those who get tested — remains relatively low, at 1.4%, although we still have plenty of viral activity in the state. We are averaging about 100 cases a day, sometimes a little more than that. 

We're getting more vaccine all the time. We heard from the administration that they're expecting to roll out a lot more vaccine now, with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. So overall, we're feeling good, but really encouraging people to continue to be cautious in this in this last stretch.

Anne Galloway: The news today nationally was that there could be enough vaccine by the end of May for all adults. Is that what you’re hearing? 

Tracy Dolan: Yes, and we were feeling that even prior to that announcement. So that's great to hear. Certainly our rollouts have been accelerating with more vaccine. We've got a lot of people registering and showing up, and our hope is that early summer, a vaccine will be ready and available for anyone who would like it in Vermont.

Liz, Greensboro: We are wondering what the next few categories will be and what the anticipated timeline is after the upcoming comorbidity category opens up.

Tracy Dolan: Sure. The high risk condition category opens next week. Concurrently, we're also working on teachers and staff in schools, and also Department of Corrections personnel and some public safety. 

But after our high risk conditions and the two age groupings, we're not sure yet what the next group will be. We may continue to go down by age category. We may shift to some other kind of sector or group. We’re not certain yet. 

Our hope is that in the next six to eight weeks we're able to open up more broadly to the public. We may be able to do that sooner, but no decisions yet have been made, beyond the high risk group, and then with the other groups that were mentioned earlier this week.

Once those people are vaccinated, that'd be about 200,000 — ideally, if everybody who was eligible took it. If you look at the population of Vermont, I think it's about 630,000. And then you take out people 16 and under, which is about 20%, that leaves us with just a little over 500,000 people. We've already vaccinated 100,000. So getting up closer to 200,000, hopefully — even if we were to get as high as an 80% uptake rate — we’ll probably have, you know, coming up close to half of Vermonters who are interested in wanting to get vaccinated vaccinated, hopefully in the next several weeks. 

Claudia, Norwich: My question is about post-vaccination. After you've had two doses and it's been 14 days — with the variants and things like that — how safe are you? Is it OK to go to church, go to public places, things like that? 

I'm actually asking on behalf of my parents who are in their 80s. They've gotten a vaccine and aren't sure about what is actually safe. 

Tracy Dolan: The nice thing about the vaccine is that it really does give you more freedom of movement, and hopefully more peace of mind. It does offer quite a bit of protection, but it's not 100%. And so we still ask people to wear masks and to socially distance, if they're going out into crowded places or if they're going to be near others. 

The vaccine is great to allow you to get out there. It's less likely that you will transmit — the information we're getting back shows that transmission is certainly reduced. But we don't know completely to what extent. We do know that, of course, the vaccine isn’t 100% effective. So, that masking and social distancing, while we wait for everyone to get vaccinated, will still be important.

Anne Galloway: Do you think we’ll be able to go without masks once everyone's vaccinated?

Tracy Dolan: I think at some point you will see mask wearing reduced. It might become part of our culture in the wintertime, during flu season, when we're at a busy place, or some people might choose to keep it part of their culture. But it's certainly not just part of our culture, but required and important right now, for the next few months. And then we'll see what it looks like in the summer. 

I anticipate with more people gathering, because we may eventually change restrictions a little bit, we're going to want to keep the mask-wearing up, particularly in crowded places.

Monica, South Burlington: When will the one shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine become available in Vermont?

Tracy Dolan: We are receiving shipments, and we are expecting shipments to continue to come in from Johnson & Johnson.

There’s a lot of excitement about having this vaccine. The one shot is really advantageous to people who prefer one shot. We're thinking younger people might really prefer a one shot vaccine.

We have been really lucky with people showing up for second appointments, for the most part. But we do know through our other immunization programs that the more shots you have in a vaccine series for one illness, the lower uptake that you get. So the one shot is great. And it looks like there's a real commitment to amp up production of the Johnson vaccine too, so it gives us another tool in the toolbox.

Anne Galloway: A lot of readers have asked, can they choose which vaccine they can get? They'd like to know if they could get Johnson & Johnson over Moderna or AstraZeneca. 

Tracy Dolan: They can choose the time they want to get vaccinated, and then really it is, what's the vaccine available? Dr. Fauci said the other day, the best vaccine is the vaccine that's available right now. And so if you're eligible right now, whatever vaccine you can get right now is the best vaccine. 

Because the first two vaccines, those percentages that came out — 95% effectiveness for moderate to severe illness — were so high, that was somewhat unanticipated. A lot of folks thought that the vaccines would be having effectiveness of 50, 60%, and we thought that would be good. And so relative to that, some of the numbers that came out for Johnson caused people to wonder. 

However, if you think of the endpoint, which is really avoiding hospitalization and death and severe illness, the Johnson vaccine is very effective at 85%. So, it may be less effective at mild illness, but it's also just one shot. Johnson is now working on the possibility of a booster shot several weeks later — even up to eight weeks later, or later in the year — that may be available to boost effectiveness there. 

But overall, all three are safe. All three are very effective at what we're really trying to prevent, which is hospitalization of death. And all three are just really important to our whole effort and resources to keep people safe.

Anne Galloway: That's great to hear. Is that true even with the new variants that we're seeing across the country?

Tracy Dolan: With Moderna and Pfizer, during their development, we didn't have those variants. So they weren't able to test on those variants as much. With Johnson, it appears Johnson appears to be relatively effective against the variants. 

I can't speak to the percentages right now in Vermont. We're yet to actually see the variants in one of our tests. We are doing some whole genome sequencing to look for it. We anticipate it's probably here. The good news though, in Vermont, is because our rates are relatively low, it's likely that the presence of variants is relatively low. The way a virus mutates is through replication. It replicates when it transmits from person to person. Because we have relatively low transmission, as evidenced by relatively low cases, we don't have as many opportunities for the variant to also transmit. So the more that we do with masking, social distancing, handwashing, avoiding crowded places, the less likely that we will have the variant replicating in Vermont as well.

Anne Galloway: So we have to keep practicing the guidelines. 

Tracy Dolan: We really do. And I know it feels like it's just right in reach, but there's still a few months that we have to do it. And I know we can do it. It’s going to start getting warmer, people can be outside more — we know being outside is much safer than being inside in a group. So there are a lot of things that are hopeful. But right now, these last couple of months, especially inside, we've really got to continue this just a little longer. Because it could really shorten what we have to deal with if we can just keep this under control. 

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