Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday that the state is developing a strategy to get at-home COVID-19 test kits into the hands of Vermont parents to enable them to test their children before the start of school after the break in the coming weeks, and to continue at-home testing during the academic year. Scott said the goal is to have 80,000 kits available to parents by the end of the week.
According to the governor, testing will not be mandatory or required for children to go back into the classroom. Instead, it’s voluntary and designed to mitigate the number of COVID-positive students entering schools and potentially spreading the virus, and in the worst-case scenario leading to school or classroom closures. Scott said details of the at-home testing program for school children will be released quickly.
As part of the new focus, Education Secretary Daniel French said going forward, parents will be responsible for at-home testing of students who have been exposed to a COVID-positive person; the prior program, called Test to Stay, had school staff conducting the rapid-response testing of students. Students testing negative will be allowed in school.
Scott and others stressed the need to get children vaccinated, particularly in light of the rapidly spreading omicron variant. By mid-January, Scott administration officials predicted, more than 55 percent of Vermont children ages 5 to 11 will have received both doses of their vaccine – the best rate in the nation.
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine’s message to parents: “Please get your children vaccinated. The time for thinking about it is past. It’s for them and the people they are with, their grandparents, (and) so they can stay in school and enjoy the childhood they deserve.”
French said there are no plans to close schools as a result of rising caseloads from the holidays or the spread of the omicron variant, although he added that individual schools might return to remote learning in specific cases.
Scott said that the state’s efforts to provide free at-home test kits to all Vermonters, which took place last week and again this week, is so successful that distribution sites are consistently running out of tests. Tens of thousands of tests were handed out last week at Transportation Agency and other sites across the state. Still, the governor said of the shortage of kits, “I understand the frustration as a result. But we’re doing the best we can.”
The federal government is working with states to provide additional tests, the governor said.
Officials clarified that the state, rather than the schools, will be distributing the tests.
The antigen test initiative, and the use of schools as a way to expand testing across Vermont reflects where the state’s strategy is headed, French said.
French also said the transition to family reporting of test results — and trusting households to be honest about the results — will be a “balancing act” between expanded test access and school control of the results.
“If we put tests in the hands of people, that’s what leads to controlling the virus,” he said.
Levine and Scott said as the pandemic moves to an endemic — a stage where the virus is common, as is the case with influenza — antigen testing will become more widespread. The downside is that the state won’t have as much data with which to monitor progress, given that people will do their own testing at home.
However, “The bottom line is we want to contain the virus. We want people to be safe,” Levine said. “While it’s beneficial have the data, the goal is for people to assess their own situation and make determinations as to whether proceed with plans they have.”
Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said that while the omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the nation – in some areas, such as New York and New Jersey, increasing between 250 and 450 percent last week – New England’s increase has been just over 30 percent. That gives Vermont and the region a window of time to ramp up vaccinations and booster shots.
The state’s COVID dashboard showed a total of 414 new cases of COVID on Tuesday, with 55 persons hospitalized and 15 in intensive care. The state reported a positive test percentage of 5.1 percent.
Bennington County reported 21 new cases on Tuesday, 543 cases in the past 14 days, and a rate of 1,524 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days — among the state’s highest in that category.
Windham County reported three new cases Tuesday, 397 in the past 14 days, and 928.5 per 100,000 in the past 14 days.