by Joseph Gresser
At Governor Phil Scott’s press conference Tuesday, Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak delivered the unwelcome news that the national death toll from the COVID pandemic has surpassed that recorded in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Since it began last year the illness has taken the lives of more than 676,000 Americans.
While Vermont has seen lower amounts of the illness than many other states over the course of the pandemic, it has seen a huge increase in numbers over the past few weeks.
On Wednesday, September 15, the state set a new record for the number of positive tests in a single day, 314.
Vermont is fortunate in having the lowest per-capita rates of death in the nation. Nevertheless, case rates are high, especially in the Northeast Kingdom.
The state’s highest percentage of cases was recorded in Orleans County last week. There were 214 people who tested positive for COVID a rate of around 623 cases per 100,000 people. That is just about double the next highest per-capita rate in Vermont.
Both Caledonia County at 315 cases per 100,000 and Essex with 211 had some of the higher rates in Vermont.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Smith said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has advised people who received the Pfizer vaccine and are over 65 years of age to get a booster shot. The same applies to people with a greater risk from illness, although Mr. Smith said the definition of risk is not yet clear.
The FDA has yet to make similar recommendations for either the Moderna or the Johnson and Johnson vaccines, Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Pieciak’s figures showed the numbers of those who have been hospitalized and those requiring intensive care have increased. He noted that 80 percent of those hospitalized have not gotten COVID shots, a higher percentage — 84 percent — of those in intensive care units, were not vaccinated.
As has been the case with throughout the pandemic older people, particularly those over 70 appear to have the greatest chance of being hospitalized due to COVID.
Although there have been cases of COVID seen among people who are fully vaccinated they appear to be less severe, Secretary Smith said.
He said the state is continuing its efforts to get people to get their shots, although only about 70,000 Vermonters remain unvaccinated. He said around 2,200 people got their shots last week.
While case numbers are beginning to drop in areas of the nation most heavily hit by the delta variant of the coronavirus, the same cannot be said in New England, according to Commissioner Pieciak.
He showed a chart with a wildly varying range of predictions of the number of cases the state can expect to see in the coming months. Depending on the methodology used to calculate the trend of COVID cases the numbers ranged from 2,500 cases, to numbers in the single digits.
Despite the marked increase in Vermont cases, Governor Scott said he will not reinstate his emergency orders. COVID will be with us in the same way as the flu, he said, and relying on emergency powers would be the wrong way to govern the state.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the delta variant of the virus is more easily spread. In addition to getting vaccinated, he urged his listeners to wear masks while indoors. That, he said, can help protect others from infection.
It is difficult to tell COVID from other respiratory infections, Dr. Levine said, especially at the time of year when flu typically spreads.
People who are concerned that they may have encountered someone with COVID or who have symptoms they think may be related to the illness should get tested, Dr. Levine said. He said testing facilities have been reopened and can provide results more quickly than before.
In addition to wearing masks, Dr. Levine suggested frequent hand washing, which, he said, can also help limit the spread of flu as well as COVID.
Although Dr. Levine had to tell his audience the state has not yet followed the downward trend in cases seen elsewhere in the country, he did offer a ray of hope by saying it is expected the Pfizer vaccine will soon be approved for use by children between five and 11 years of age.
Dr. Levine said he thinks youngsters may be eligible to get the vaccine by the end of October.