MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott and his administration warned on Tuesday that April could mean increasing numbers of cases of the COVID-19 virus in the New England region, including Vermont, likely because of community spread.
At the same time, Vermonters are turning out in strong numbers for vaccines, officials said, with 21,000 Vermonters 50 years old and older registering on Monday alone for their first shot.
The administration also announced during Tuesday’s twice-weekly briefing that two special groups would be eligible this week to register for vaccines — parents or caretakers of children with severe illness who are currently not eligible for the vaccine, and all people 16 and older from BIPOC households.
Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, have a much lower rate of vaccination and a higher rate of the disease and the state is making a special effort to protect them and get them vaccinated, Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Department of Health, said.
Nationally, 22.2 percent of people of color have received one dose of vaccine, while the rate for white people is 33 percent, he said.
“We do not think this rate of vaccination of that community is something we can ignore,” Levine said.
Overall, older Vermonters are turning out in strong numbers to get their shots, whether it is the two-shot regime of Pfizer and Moderna, or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Scott, who earlier Tuesday was in a White House briefing for governors, joined the press conference to announce that the state would be getting between 5,000 to 6,000 additional shots of vaccine next week, bringing the number of potential shots available to Vermonters to 28,000. He said the supply would be steady, with the exception of the relatively new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which still has supply challenges.
Late last week the state set a record for the number of daily cases, 251, and a similarly high number, 240, on Saturday. On Tuesday, the figure had dropped to 71 new cases. But Vermont had 1,191 cases last week, only two less than its record week in January (1,193) and a significant jump from 856 from the week before.
Scott said the state’s strategy with vaccines is to reduce death and hospitalizations, and he said Vermont is “three weeks away” from everyone being able to register for a vaccine.
Half of the new cases are among Vermonters 30 years or younger, state officials said.
Levine and Michael Pieciak, the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, both warned that April would see high numbers before cases would start to decline overall in May.
Pieciak said he needed another week’s worth of data before he could forecast Vermont’s future cases. But for the region, he said, “the forecast is that cases remain high through the month of April.”
Pieciak, who is the state’s COVID data guru, said the state’s strong vaccination effort in the past three months had saved 78 Vermont lives. He said the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus is becoming more widespread, and is much more contagious. A total of 225 Vermonters have died of the virus.
“The key to ending the pandemic is for all of us to get vaccinated,” said Pieciak.
Nationwide, officials are reporting that a fourth wave of COVID-19 is hitting the country.
Administration officials said that among the age groups that have been vaccinated, the numbers are reassuring — the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths have declined dramatically. A full 80 percent of Vermonters 65 years old and older have had at least one shot of vaccine.
The largest number of cases comes from those people in their 20s, they said, and they urged all Vermonters to continue to wear masks and keep a safe distance and avoid large gatherings.
Levine said the largest number of cases is in northern Vermont and Rutland County, but he said he has no explanation for the geographic differences. Earlier in the winter, Bennington County had a high number of cases.
Mike Smith, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said the Northeast Kingdom county of Essex has the lowest vaccination rate, and he said state officials are working to solve that problem, including mobile vaccination clinics.
Smith also detailed a schedule of vaccination of all Vermont inmates, which follows the age-oriented schedule of all Vermonters. But following the new guidelines announced during the press conference, all BIPOC inmates will now be eligible for the vaccine, as of Thursday.
All Vermonters aged 16 and older will be eligible for a vaccine by April 19. Immunity is not considered to be in place until two weeks after the second shot of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and two weeks after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Levine said the increasing number of cases is a result of community spread, and not the lessening of restrictions on bars, clubs and restaurants. But he urged Vermonters to continue to wear masks, avoid large gatherings and to keep socially distant.
The administration said it is loosening hospital visiting restrictions, and that people who are fully vaccinated could visit loved ones in hospitals, as long as they provide proof of vaccination. Hospitals, Smith warned, are free to have more strict guidelines.