Jump in COVID Cases Could Temporarily Shut Vt. Schools, Officials Warn

Aiming to mitigate the most serious impacts from disease, the health department and governor urge eligible Vermonters to get their COVID-19 vaccine boosters

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State officials in Vermont offered an early warning Tuesday that COVID-19 cases could climb high enough in the weeks ahead to force temporary school closures in some communities -- there simply may not be enough staff to keep them running.

"I expect we will see some intermittent school closures in the coming weeks as a result of staff availability issues, since schools do not have many substitutes to draw upon," said Secretary Dan French of the Vermont Agency of Education.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration said at a news conference that COVID-19 case infections are sure to rise in the coming weeks following holiday gatherings. The numbers are likely to be made worse by the fact the increasingly prevalent omicron variant is more transmissible than other forms of the virus, the administration said.

Kids under age 5 are still not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine — and now hospitals are seeing a spike in children infected with the Omicron variant of the virus. In New York City, pediatric hospitalizations have quadrupled. And data shows huge percentages of child COVID patients have not been fully vaccinated yet, either due to choice or because they're ineligible, says Dr. Colleen Kraft of Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Echoing French's prediction, Scott said that in this next chapter of the pandemic, infections could be problematic enough that other workplaces -- not just schools -- may struggle to maintain their normal schedules due to staffing levels.

"We're watching this not just in the education community, but throughout every sector across the state," Scott said, adding that staffing levels were already a challenge throughout many sectors of the Vermont economy even before the omicron variant.

The Scott administration did note that new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reduce the number of days for quarantine and isolation, should help with attendance and staff availability in schools and other workplaces if cases do rise, as expected.

Bracing for test sites across the state to soon detect that rise in COVID-19 cases, the Vermont Department of Health says booster shots will help guard against the most severe outcomes like hospitalizations or deaths.

It is those most severe outcomes that state leaders said they want to see mitigated.

For that reason, even if overall case counts do climb, the Scott administration said what matters most is how the state performs on metrics such as maintaining intensive care unit capacity and minimizing fatalities.

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, urged Vermonters to check out this state website for vaccination locations, explaining that people should not consider themselves fully protected against COVID until they receive their booster doses.

The primary goal of boosters is to minimize the most severe outcomes from COVID, Levine emphasized.

Outside a walk-in vaccination site at the Berlin Mall Tuesday, Kris Murner said she tested negative before Christmas get-togethers, then got her third shot for added protection from COVID.

"My employer actually gave me a day off to get my booster, so that was pretty great," Murner said. "This is kind of like the next thing to do to sort of tamp this down, hopefully."

Scott asked Vermonters to stay tuned to announcements in the coming days of how families can obtain free rapid test kits to perform at home before their children return to school from the holiday break.

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