Vermont officials on Thursday expressed concern over an unexpected reduction in the number of coronavirus vaccine doses being delivered to the state by the federal government.
In a press conference, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the state expected to receive 3,900 doses each of Moderna and Pfizer's vaccines next week, a total of about 3,200 less than expected.
Smith said the reduction, if not addressed, could impact the state's vaccine inoculation timeline and that officials had reached out to the federal government to determine why the reductions were made.
"We're really trying to understand what's going on," Smith said. "You can't have a program where there's no predictability in what you're getting and then you get cut from one week to the next."
Gov. Phil Scott added: "We hope that is temporary, that we will be able to scale back up, because we're ready to provide for the vaccinations. But we need the supply, and there seems to be a pent-up demand for it... Our hands are somewhat tied."
The race to vaccinate millions of Americans is off to a slower, messier start than public health officials and leaders of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed had expected.
Over the past few weeks, Trump administration health officials had talked about a goal of shipping enough vaccine by the end of the month to inoculate 20 million Americans. But it’s unclear if the U.S. will reach that mark.
As of Thursday, nearly 14,000 Vermonters had received the first dose of the vaccine.
The state's vaccination plan is being implemented in phases, with high-risk healthcare workers and long term-care facility residents as the top priority.
After the first phase of inoculations, dubbed Phase 1A, the state plans to implement an age-based timeline for vaccinations that prioritizes older residents as well as those with underlying health conditions.
Under the system, residents 75 years or older will be first in line to receive the vaccine after the end of Phase 1A, which Smith said could happen in January if enough deliveries are made. Vaccinations of residents 70 years and older and 65 years older, respectively, would happen after that.
Vermont is preparing to begin its mass vaccination program, which will involve 12 locations where Vermonters will be able go to be vaccinated, including primary care providers, pharmacies and Health Department district office sites.
The sites will be capable of handling 300 people each twice a week or 7,200 vaccinations a week, according to Smith. Vaccines will be prioritized and given based on age," because the older you are, the more vulnerable you are to COVID-19," Smith said.
Meanwhile, officials said schools throughout the state should prioritize in-person learning in the new year, citing what they said was a low transmission rate within school buildings.
Education Secretary Daniel French said despite isolated cases within schools, the state's testing surveillance program showed that only 0.04% of school staff tested during the week of Dec. 13 had COVID-19, well below the state's percent-positive rate.
Education officials are now planning for a "recovery phase" during which in-person learning is prioritized, French said.
"As we shift into what will be the recovery phase, it will be important that all schools prioritize increasing the amount of in-person instruction," French said.
The state reported 130 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, including two deaths, bringing the state's overall case total to 7,412 and death toll to 136.
Despite relatively higher numbers Thursday, officials say the number of new cases of people infected with the coronavirus in the state continues to drop. But they are waiting to see if holiday gatherings and travel will drive a surge in cases in the new year.
The relatively good news about the virus comes as Vermont health officials are continuing to vaccinate health care workers and those considered at the highest risk of death from COVID-19. Those are usually frail people and those living in long-term care facilities.
Scott is urging people to "pay attention," and, "use common sense." Everyone should continue to avoid unnecessary gatherings or traveling out of state, Scott said, wear a mask and keeping your distance from others.
Meanwhile, more stringent holiday gathering restrictions remain in place in Vermont through the New Year. The new rules, announced Tuesday, allow households to choose one other "trusted" household to gather with from through Jan. 2, 2021.
Gathering with more than one household, even if it's on different days, is not permitted. If the one other household is from out-of-state, everyone from both households must quarantine for seven days and get a test or quarantine for 14 days.
Vermont officials encouraged residents not to call looking for a vaccine, as those in line will be contacted. The state has also launched an online dashboard to provide ongoing updates and information about vaccine distribution.