Health Care

Labor Day Covid spike prompts Scott to redouble calls for vaccination

Gov. Phil Scott speaks during a Covid-19 press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“Vaccination” has been the battle cry in Vermont’s fight against Covid-19, and as case counts have continued to rise — up 27% since Labor Day — state officials say the solution is more vaccination.

Vermont’s latest Covid data has been grim: The state’s seven-day average case count reached a new high this week. Total deaths in the pandemic have surpassed 300. The rate of positive Covid tests has increased, and so has the number of hospitalizations.

The state Department of Health reported 129 new cases Tuesday, bringing the seven-day average to 209. Forty-eight Vermonters were in the hospital, including 19 in intensive care units — the highest number since early February.

Officials said Tuesday that Labor Day-related gatherings and activities could have caused a new spike, which began about 10 days after the holiday weekend.

These trends are being driven by unvaccinated people, Gov. Phil Scott said at his weekly press conference in Montpelier on Tuesday. The unvaccinated account for about 80% of hospitalizations, he said, and 83% of ICU cases. 

“For example, yesterday, of the 47 in the hospital, 46 were adults, and 35 of those adults are eligible to be vaccinated and were not,” Scott said. “As has been said before, and I’ll say it again: This is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Vermont’s vaccination effort will include administering booster shots in long-term care facilities as soon as they’re available, which could be later this week.

Effective this week, all 8,000 state employees must either be vaccinated or wear a mask and be tested regularly, and school employees may be close behind. 

President Biden has mandated vaccinations for all employers with more than 100 employees — and that includes many public agencies such as school districts. About 60 of Vermont’s 154 school entities are affected by that requirement, Secretary of Education Dan French said at Tuesday’s press conference, and “we’re considering expanding the state requirement to include all school districts, not just those that have more than 100 employees.” So far, 26 states and two territories have approved federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans that would expand a vaccination mandate to include public-sector employees, including school district employees. Vermont is one of these states.

“We’ll have more news on this in the coming weeks,” French said.

Scott said Vermont still has the most fully vaccinated population in the country, at 78.1%. Overall, 87.3% of people eligible for the vaccine have started vaccinations, putting Vermont in third place behind Massachusetts and Hawaii by that metric.

So far, 481,000 Vermonters have at least one dose of the vaccine, and fewer than 70,000 have had no vaccine. Another 2,188 people started the vaccination process this week, 6.6% fewer than did so the week before. 

Scott noted he’s been criticized for not taking stronger action. But, he said, “We simply can’t be in a perpetual state of emergency. It sets a dangerous precedent and will be an abuse of my authority, with the vaccines proving to be so effective in protecting people.” 

State officials estimate the vaccine has saved 520 lives in Vermont, Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak said at Tuesday’s press conference, and the state still has the lowest per-capita death rate in the country for the entire pandemic, even though current case counts are high.

Covid cases among people who are not fully vaccinated increased by 21% in the last seven days, while cases among fully vaccinated people increased by only 7%. Case counts have been particularly high in Orleans and Caledonia counties, in the Northeast Kingdom.

School issues

School contact tracing has been a huge burden, not very effective and not sustainable, said French, the education secretary. For instance, one school spent 20 hours on contact tracing for just a few cases, 12-day quarantines are disrupting education, and a recent group of 54 quarantined students lost a total of 166 learning days. 

“We must find a quicker way to get kids back in the classroom,” French said.

So, the state plans to limit contact tracing to schools in which the student vaccination rate is low, and will recommend that students and parents get tested within three to five days of a potential exposure. That would largely involve high schools, French said, and would allow districts to focus more resources at the elementary level.

Take-home test kits would be used at schools as a way to improve detection of Covid cases and improve the response speed among students and staff, French said. The state has an extensive testing network, which includes 38 dedicated sites and 21 pharmacies. In the last seven days, those locations have conducted 53,000 tests. 

“We hope testing through the schools will better serve families and children to speed up the process so we can reduce the number of days students are out of the classroom,” said Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith.

Every Vermont school except one — an elementary school in Canaan — has a masking policy.

Yet Vermont reported a record high number of cases in schools this week, with 174 cases among students and staff. The rate among children under 12 years old is almost double the rate for those over 12.

One of the hardest-hit schools has been Derby Elementary, which reported 18 cases in the past week, the highest one-week total of any school so far this year.

The state is also piloting the use of take-home Covid tests in six districts, including Champlain Valley schools, Montpelier-Roxbury, Bennington, Rutland, the Brattleboro area, and the Essex North supervisory union based in Canaan. 

“We intend to roll this program out to all districts in the near future,” French said.

Take-home testing kits will be used when a student is a close contact or is symptomatic, and the test kits are self-contained, with everything a family needs to register the kit and do the testing, French said. Results can be returned to the school or dropped off at a UPS site.

“We learned so many lessons last year about how to manage the virus in our schools,“ French said. “We know how to use the various strategies to keep our schools open, but this year will come down to vaccination. Every Vermonter has to do their part. If you want to keep our schools open and keep our kids and their education moving forward, you have to get vaccinated and get your children vaccinated — simple as that.”

Erin Petenko contributed reporting.

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Tom Kearney

About Tom

Tom Kearney was managing editor of the Stowe Reporter from 2005 to July 2020, aside from an 18-month break to be senior manager for global editorial quality in a Yellowbook startup that launched 700 monthly community magazines in 15 months. It folded, everybody was laid off, and he got his Stowe job back, along with heading the news operations at the News & Citizen of Morrisville and the Waterbury Record. He also oversaw improvements in The Other Paper of South Burlington, Shelburne News, and The Citizen of Charlotte and Hinesburg after the company acquired them. Earlier, he spent 20 years as executive editor of The Keene Sentinel, a regional daily in New Hampshire. He is past president of the New England Society of News Editors; a former board member of New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England Newspaper and Press Association; and co-chair of the N.H. Committee on Judiciary and the Media. He’s a two-time juror for Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, and was a delegate in New England exchanges with Russian journalists, and in a shortlived exchange with Iran journalists. He’s a member of the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame; awards include the Yankee Quill, N.H. First Amendment Award, and various writing awards. He’s married and has two children, two stepchildren and five grandchildren.

Email: [email protected]

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