Vermont is vaccinating its health care workers and long-term care facilities for coronavirus, state officials said Friday, but urged people to practice cautious optimism.
"Vaccines will help us beat the virus and begin our return to normal and while it's a huge milestone, we need to remember just because a vaccine exists, doesn't mean we can let our guard down," Gov. Phil Scott said Friday. "It will still be several more months before the vaccines starts to lower the infection rate of the virus."
All hospitals in the state have received their complete allocation of vaccines for the first week and have been busy vaccinating their higher-risk health care staff, according to Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
"I'm happy to say that the COVID-19 vaccination effort in Vermont has begun," Levine said. "As important as the vaccine is, we must not let this good news drown out how essential it is for us all to stay focused on preventing the spread of COVID."
High risk health care workers and long-term care facility residents were identified by the state as part of the first priority group to receive the vaccine.
"By the time I see you next Tuesday at our press conference, vaccinations in long-term care facilities will have begun with staff and our seniors getting the vaccine, which is incredibly important," Scott said Friday.
Officials are still working to finalize the second priority group in the coming weeks, Levine said, but it will "almost certainly," involve some combination of people over 65 and people with chronic or immune compromising conditions.
Health officials are awaiting recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice, which is scheduled to meet this weekend, and the state's vaccine implementation advisory group, which was slated to meet later Friday.
Meanwhile, state officials said they're "closely watching what's happening in Washington," around a second stimulus package as they send out the last of their federal funds to local businesses for economic relief.
State education officials also compiled monthly data from school districts regarding the amount of in-person, remote and hybrid learning taking place. The November data remained largely unchanged from October, with 14% of students in complete remote learning mode, 33% in-person and 53% - still the majority - in a hybrid learning model.
Looking ahead, officials are planning initiatives to start the next phase in education, which they have named the recovery phase. During the month of January, state officials will develop and outline a process that requires districts to develop recovery plans. The concept is expected to launch sometime around Feb. 1, but officials noted it is a tentative timeline dependent on public health conditions.
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The first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine was administered Tuesday to a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Later Tuesday, five nurses were vaccinated at the Rutland Regional Medical Center.
The state could receive as many as 34,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of the month, though it will still be "several months" before the vaccine is available to many residents. Those who receive the first dose will receive a second dose of the vaccine in 21 days, Levine said in a news conference Tuesday.
Vermont saw its highest number of cases in one week ever last week. Cases rose for the sixteenth week in a row, but just by 6 percent, compared to a 50 percent increase from the week before.
Scott likened the perseverance of Vermonters to their determination to get through the cold winters, followed by the difficult mud season.
"We still have months of hard work ahead, that's why it marks the beginning of the end," Scott said Tuesday. "Time and time again, Vermonters reward my faith in them."
Scott said the first 1,950 doses of the Pfizer's vaccine arrived in the state Monday. The State Vaccine Depot and the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington each received 975 doses.
“This is an important milestone and an essential step toward defeating a virus that’s devastated families and businesses throughout Vermont and around the globe,” Scott said in a statement. “There is no better, safer or faster way to defeat this virus and work to rebuild our economy than a successful effort to make vaccines available to every single Vermonter. We are committed to working with our partners to get this done, so we can get through this and be stronger and more resilient than ever before.”
The Vermont Department of Health was allocated weekly shipments of 5,850 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine through December. On Tuesday, the Health Department will receive an additional 1,950 doses, and another 1,950 doses will ship later this week directly to pharmacies that have contracted with the federal government to administer vaccines at long-term care facilities. The Health Department, in coordination with the State Emergency Operations Center, will distribute vaccine to hospitals throughout the state.
Health care workers as well as those who live and work in long-term care facilities will be among the first to get the vaccine. People ages 65 and older, those with underlying conditions, along with essential workers are next in line to receive a vaccine.