Health Care

Even as Covid cases rise nationally, Vermont’s rate remains highest in the nation

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.

Until a few weeks ago, Vermont was one of a handful of states reporting a rise in Covid-19 cases from the BA.2 variant, while the rest of the nation experienced a lengthy decline from the Omicron variant’s peak in January.

That is no longer the case. Vermont’s case rate is still the highest in the nation, according to The New York Times, but cases are now rising nationwide — by 43% in the past two weeks. 

Nationwide hospitalizations for the disease have not changed much in recent weeks. But in New England, the epicenter of the BA.2 surge, the number of Covid patients has increased 31% in two weeks. New York and New Jersey’s Covid hospitalizations are also rising.

Vermont’s Covid hospitalizations have doubled in that period. As of Tuesday, 40 people were in Vermont hospitals with the virus, including two in intensive care, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday that the state was still “watching and monitoring for any substantial impacts” from BA.2. 

Mark Levine
Health Commissioner Mark Levine answers questions at a press briefing on COVID-19 on March 23, 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“Fortunately, the increases we’re seeing in case numbers and hospitalizations continue to be on a much smaller scale than the original Omicron variant, (and) still an order of magnitude less than at the peak of Omicron,” Levine said at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference.

The health department reported 151 new Covid cases Tuesday, bringing the state’s seven-day average to 256 cases per day, up 68% from two weeks ago. The department added three additional deaths to its data, bringing the death toll for the pandemic to 626. Five people have died so far in April.

Self-reported antigen test results increased as well, with 1,094 Vermonters reporting positive test results, about two-thirds of the results submitted, according to health department data. That’s compared to about 789 positives the week before, about three-fourths of the results submitted.

The combination of recent Covid cases and hospitalizations has placed nine Vermont counties in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “medium” category for Covid community levels.

Levine said that according to the CDC, that means Vermonters at higher risk of severe illness may want to “take more precautions.”

“You may still be wearing a mask around others if you’re older, or have certain health conditions, if you spend time with someone who’s at higher risk, or have kids that can’t be vaccinated,” he said.

At the same time, Vermonters in general can live “more normally” because of the mildness of BA.2 and the availability of Covid vaccines, Levine said.

According to the latest weekly modeling report from the Department of Financial Regulation, Vermont had one of the lowest ratios between case counts and hospitalizations in the nation over the past week, meaning that a small percentage of people with the disease are in the hospital. Vermont also continues to report one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, the DFR reported.

However, recent data from the health department about breakthrough cases paints a more complicated picture of the risk for vaccinated Vermonters. 

During the Omicron surge, unvaccinated Vermonters were at greatly higher risk of contracting and being hospitalized for Covid than Vermonters who had received their initial course of the vaccine.

But during the BA.2 surge, that gap has narrowed. Case rates among the unvaccinated are now about 27% higher than those for vaccinated Vermonters, compared to a 100% or higher rate during the Omicron surge, according to health department data.

Levine said the data might indicate that the latest variants are very transmissible, even to vaccinated people, but that vaccinated people are still protected against severe illness.

The hospitalization data for the past week showed an even rarer trend: Hospitalizations for vaccinated people were higher for the week of April 3 than for unvaccinated people, although both had a far lower hospitalization rate compared to the height of the Omicron surge.

The data could indicate that Covid has “exhausted” the pool of unvaccinated Vermonters, because so many of them have contracted the virus, Levine said. He also pointed out that about half of Vermonters hospitalized with Covid were admitted for other causes and tested positive while at the hospital.

“Just to give people context,” the graph for breakthrough hospitalizations shows “a gigantic gap between the unvaccinated and vaccinated rates” for cases from the past six months, and a narrow gap for only the past month, he said.

“The more we focus on those case numbers, the less relevant they become,” Levine said. “The hospital numbers are much more relevant, and they continue to show our health care system is not by any means close to (being) at capacity.”

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Erin Petenko

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