Health Care

On last week of state testing, Covid levels remain ‘low’

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.

Statewide Covid-19 community levels were “low” for the week of June 19 to June 25, the last week that state-run testing sites were open, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health.

The state sites provided PCR tests that have been a key source of case data throughout the pandemic, along with less-reported antigen tests in recent months. Officials cited increased access to antigen tests at pharmacies and health care providers as a reason for shutting down the state’s testing sites. 

The health department removed information about PCR testing sites from its website early this week, replacing it with a reminder that Vermonters “can also reach out to your health care provider or local pharmacy” for PCR or LAMP tests.

But some experts and high-risk people have expressed concerns about losing the widespread availability of PCR testing and how that could affect our understanding of Covid in Vermont.

It’s too early to say how the loss of state PCR testing has affected Covid data. Cases for Sunday through Tuesday of this week did not show any significant change from previous days, but there tends to be a delay between someone taking a PCR test and the health department adding the results to its data.

The health department has also reduced its emphasis on PCR-based Covid case counts, relying instead on hospitalizations, wastewater data and symptomatic emergency visits in its weekly report

However, its top-level assessment of Covid in Vermont — the Covid “community level” — is partly based on case rates, along with recent hospital admissions and the percentage of hospital beds taken up by Covid patients.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses the same metrics to do a county-by-county analysis of community levels. Last Thursday, it rated almost all of Vermont as having “low” Covid levels; among Vermont’s 14 counties, only Essex County had “medium” levels.

The health department report also noted an increase in two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, which have been spreading nationally. As of June 5, the two accounted for about 27% of samples taken in Vermont. 

CDC data through June 25 for New England as a whole showed a higher total for BA.4 and BA.5, at 44% of samples taken in the region.

The number of people hospitalized for Covid remained about the same this week as it was last week, according to health department data. As of Wednesday, 25 patients were in Vermont hospitals with Covid, including two in intensive care.

The department has reported a total of 11 Covid deaths so far in June, putting it on track to have far fewer deaths than May, which had 32 deaths. In total, 683 Vermonters have died since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The death toll is based on death certificates that list Covid as a cause or probable cause of death, according to the health department. Because of the time it takes to investigate deaths and prepare death certificates, deaths can sometimes be added retroactively, raising the total for previous weeks and months.

Data by age group continues to show consistently low case counts across all ages, although 30- to 39-year-olds had the highest case rate in the past week.

Data from the health department on breakthrough cases and hospitalizations is limited because of the relatively low level of Covid throughout the state. For example, the department reported that vaccinated Vermonters had a higher hospitalization rate than unvaccinated Vermonters, but only two vaccinated people were admitted in the past week, according to the data.

The health department also does not track whether fully vaccinated people are up-to-date on their vaccines, including any recommended booster doses.

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Erin Petenko

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