Vermont, Long a Beacon in COVID-19 Fight, Grapples With Surge in Cases

Vermont's online COVID dashboard has been reporting a few hundred cases a day lately, even setting pandemic-wide records several times, but Gov. Phil Scott said there are still successes to be proud of

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Vermont was long the envy of the nation for its low number of COVID cases, but has seen a recent reversal of fortunes on that front.

Vermont's health commissioner on Tuesday reminded residents that "the pandemic isn't over yet," part of a presentation from members of the Scott administration that aimed to keep attention focused on the seriousness of COVID-19 and steps people can take to reduce infections.

"Our case rates have gone up about 64% over the past 30 days," said Mike Pieciak, the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, who also leads COVID-19 data modeling for the state.

Pieciak described significant leaps in new infections for all groups under age 65. Vermont's online COVID dashboard has been reporting a few hundred cases a day lately, even setting pandemic-wide records several times.

COVID-19 cases are climbing, and health officials are expecting a potential surge in the coming months.

Pieciak offered a sobering warning Tuesday.

"[We're] not expecting the cases to go down, at this point," he said of the next several weeks.

There have been several explanations for the increase, which is jarring compared to very low case numbers in the summer of 2020.

They include waning vaccine protection in people who lined up really early for their shots to a more robust testing program than most states have -- meaning, Vermont catches and documents more positives than others do, Gov. Phil Scott said.

"We're somewhat of a victim of our own success," argued Scott, a Republican.

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The highly contagious delta variant has also torn through the unvaccinated. That population, according to the Scott administration, does make up most new infections.

Still, there is not reason for complete despair, the governor insisted, saying, "I think we still have a lot to be proud of."

That list includes strong early interest from parents in getting vaccines for newly eligible 5- to 11-year-olds, according to Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.

"For the education of our students to continue in an uninterrupted manner, they need to get vaccinated," added Dan French, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education.

For more information on getting the COVID-19 vaccine or boosters, visit this health department website.

Vermont leads the nation in fully vaccinated folks 65 and up getting their booster doses, Pieciak noted.

The result of that is low hospitalization rates for the most vulnerable ages, Pieciak and Scott said.

"You look at the hospitalizations, we're still amongst the lowest in the nation," Scott said. "That's been our strategy all along. We're looking at hospitalizations, and the ICU capacity -- we're protecting our health care system, and we've done just that."

Halloween brought an outbreak of COVID-19 to a small Vermont college, and the school is still asking community members to stay vigilant.

Hoping for more optimistic headlines -- as in fewer case jumps -- the health commissioner is strongly urging Vermonters to gather in small, fully vaccinated groups for Thanksgiving, with negative tests in hand by the holiday.

"If you have any symptoms, even mild ones, please make the hard but right choice to skip the dinner and stay home," said Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont's health commissioner. "There will be plenty of leftovers."

The governor has resisted calls for broad new mask mandates to slow the spread of disease, believing such decrees would not be well-received at this stage in the pandemic. However, Democrats in the Vermont Legislature are now weighing a plan that would allow individual towns the option to put their own mask mandates in place.

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