Health Care

Covid case rates are at record level right now, with no decline in sight

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Vermont’s Covid-19 case rate has spiked to record levels, increasing 42% over the past seven days, Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said at a press conference Tuesday.

Within only 10 days, Vermont’s seven-day average has gone from about 200 cases each day to over 300 cases per day, Department of Health data shows. Pieciak said the data suggested that Halloween activities were at least partially to blame.

Questioned about the data last week, department spokesperson Ben Truman pointed out the record-high testing numbers as a reason for the surge. But the latest data from Pieciak’s presentation suggests that testing does not fully explain the rise.

Testing rose 9% over the same period that cases rose 42%, the data shows. Vermont’s seven-day positivity rate is now the highest since the beginning of July.

Pieciak said Vermont’s near-term forecast projected that cases are “not expected to decrease” over the next few weeks, meaning they could either stay flat or increase further.

The rest of New England, particularly Maine and New Hampshire, is also reporting rising case numbers. But Vermont now reports the third-highest rate of case increase in the nation, and the ninth-highest case rate overall, New York Times data shows.

State officials dug into the numbers Tuesday to reveal how the latest spike is occurring. But state Health Commissioner Mark Levine said “there is not one simple answer” to why this surge is happening now. 

Among other factors, he blamed the longstanding villain of Vermont’s pandemic battle: the Delta variant. “This may sound like old news, but the fact is, this version of the Covid-19 virus is incredibly contagious,” he said.

Who’s getting sick? 

The latest spike in cases has affected the entire state. Eleven of Vermont’s 14 counties have reported a rise in cases over the past two weeks, and the cases cut across many age groups and demographics.

But some groups are more affected than others. Chief among them are unvaccinated people, who continue to report infection rates more than three times higher than vaccinated people, according to Department of Financial Regulation data. Cases among both unvaccinated and vaccinated people have risen more than a third over the past week.

Children 5 to 11 years old, for whom vaccinations have just become available, are the most affected age group. Schools reported 217 new Covid cases in the past week, up from 153 the week before.

Essex County, the county with the lowest vaccination rate in Vermont, now has the highest Covid case rate of any county at any point in the pandemic. It surpassed Orleans County with more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in the past week.

Another recent hotspot is higher education. St. Michael’s College in Colchester reported a Halloween-centered outbreak that has caused at least 55 cases in the past week.

Pieciak pointed out that the spike comes a few days after Halloween, potentially causing a surge similar to the rise in cases that occurred in November 2020 at a much smaller level.

Levine said the unvaccinated population may be a small percentage of the state’s residents, but it still adds up to 50,000 adults and children. “And believe me, this virus is very effective at finding them,” he said.

He added that Vermont may partially be a victim of its own success. The state has had so few Covid cases throughout the pandemic that its rate of natural immunity pre-Delta was only about 3%.

Vermont also vaccinated more people early in 2021, leading to a waning immunity for people who now need a booster, he said.

What are the effects so far?

Hospitalizations have risen in the past few weeks, but they aren’t reaching record-breaking levels quite yet. It may take several days to see the full effects of the rise that began late last week.

Vermont has also reported 13 deaths so far this month, but deaths are another lagging indicator of case growth.

Gov. Phil Scott expressed concern about the limited capacity of intensive care units that have been loaded with Covid and non-Covid patients. Covid patients have made up about 10% to 15% of ICU patients in the past month, averaging about 14 patients per day.

But ICUs have experienced an influx of patients with chronic illnesses, or who postponed treatments during the pandemic, and that influx is limiting ICU capacity overall, Levine said.

Because of increases in non-Covid cases, Vermont has had days where there were only 10 open ICU beds in the entire state, Scott said.

Source: Department of Health via Department of Financial Regulation

“If we make smart decisions in the coming weeks and make an extra effort to protect the vulnerable, we can help reduce hospitalizations, but it takes all of us committing to the smart practical choices — starting with getting vaccinated,” Scott said.

How are we responding?

Scott said some “good news” this week was Vermont’s strong interest in the vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. One-third of children in that age group, or about 14,000 children, have signed up for the vaccine or gotten it.

Officials also encouraged Vermonters to get their booster dose if they haven’t already. About 48% of Vermonters 65 and older have gotten the booster, Pieciak said.

Scott said because case numbers are high, Vermonters should wear masks in public, limit gathering sizes and use testing as a tool to protect themselves and others.

But he declined to say whether he’d be willing to impose any actual restrictions, even if hospital admissions rise. “I don't believe we'll get to that point,” he said.

“We’re back down to where we were before (on hospitalizations) so I don't believe we’ll hit that mark,” he said. “We want to prevent that from happening before it does.”

Scott and other state leaders wore masks at the press conference for the first time in months. 

“We’ve felt in the past we've been safe in this environment … there’s (still) 25 people here and sometimes you have to practice what you preach,” Scott said.

He said he would not impose a mask mandate, though, because the social science of masking suggests that it wouldn’t accomplish anything to add one.

“You can put all the restrictions in place, but if they’re not adhered to, it’s all for naught. And then you do create areas of confrontation,” he said. “We were fortunate here in Vermont that we had a ... great deal of people who did the right thing and were willing partners at the appropriate time. And we can’t be in a perpetual state of emergency here. It would be an abuse of power.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story understated the number of counties in Vermont.

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