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MONTPELIER — An increase in COVID-19 vaccine doses will allow the state to increase the number of vaccinations being offered in Bennington County and two other counties, Agency of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Friday.

Vermont will be receiving an additional 1,350 doses over and above its usual shipment, Smith said. That, coupled with high demand in Bennington, Lamoille and Orange counties, is leading the state to add capacity as it completes administering doses to Vermonters aged 75 and older.

The state had administered 32,556 doses to Vermonters in the 75 and older age band as of Friday, Smith said during the twice-weekly COVID-19 briefing. He anticipates completing the first dose phase of the two-dose vaccination in five weeks, and believes the state will vaccinate Vermonters 65 and older — about 125,000 residents — around the start of spring.

The state will work to add vaccine sites to areas where there are longer drive times, Smith said. He also said the state would be partnering with hospitals including Brattleboro Memorial Hospital next week.

Eligible residents who have yet to make an appointment should register at healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine or call 855-722-7878.

Smith and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also addressed the situation at Springfield Hospital, where 860 doses of the Moderna vaccine were thought to have been spoiled, but have since been ruled to be effective and safe for use.

Smith had announced the possibility of the doses being lost at a Wednesday briefing. But Levine said further consultation with the hospital and Moderna confirmed that the doses in question had been stored 1 degree Celsius above the recommended temperature range of between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We’ve been notified a refrigerator may have reached a temp slightly above the recommended maximum,” Levine said.

While the general guideline stipulates affected doses be discarded, “because of the very large amount of vaccine involved and the specifics of the situation, we worked with [Moderna] on a much more comprehensive review,” Levine said.

Late Thursday, Moderna said the vaccine was effective and safe for use and could be used with “full public confidence,” Levine said.

None of the vaccine had been discarded, Levine said. Recipients will not know if they received one of those 860 doses, but each dose is identified by lot number so it can be traced in case of problems, he added.

To date, the state has had to discard 99 doses of vaccine, or 0.1 percent of the doses received, Levine said.

A SHOT OF VACCINE ADVICE

Officials advised that recipients do not need to arrive more than 15 minutes before their appointment to be vaccinated, and need not line up outside in the cold for their turn. They also said recipients should bring only one person with them for assistance if needed, and be sure to wear a mask.

Officials also reminded recipients that it takes time for the body to build up immunity to the coronavirus after the second dose, so precautions should be made. “Just because you got a vaccine, that doesn’t make you invincible,” Levine said.

The additional 1,350 doses will also be used in the Department of Health’s outreach in Black, indigenous and people of color who are eligible for the vaccine, Smith said.

At Friday’s briefing, Gov. Phil Scott again reminded residents that the state is vaccinating older Vermonters first because the data shows they’re more vulnerable to serious illness or death from the coronavirus.

Scott said he understands that residents are anxious to get vaccinated and return to a semblance of normalcy. “But we feel strongly our goal should be reducing hospitalizations and deaths,” Scott said.

In other COVID-19 developments:

• Asked about a lag between registration and appointments for homebound vaccine recipients, Smith said he hopes to have a plan mapped out next week. Officials have been consulting with vaccine manufacturers on safe transport protocols for at-home visits, Smith said.

• Asked when vaccine recipients can safely begin disregarding safety precautions such as distancing and masks, Levine said he is still awaiting guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He added that should be a national rather than local standard.

“It’s a pretty high-impact discussion. There needs to be some element of deliberateness so we can really make the right decision and not just make it in isolation,” Levine said.

• Secretary of Education Daniel French said surveillance testing of PreK-12 staff this past week did not detect any cases of COVID-19.

While there have been cases of COVID-19 in schools, the mitigation tools used by school districts have contained the spread of the virus when cases occur, French said. He said those tools would remain priorities even as more vaccines are deployed and the primary focus turns to education recovery from the pandemic.

French said the state is still awaiting guidance from Washington on whether standardized testing will be waived this year, as it was last year. A decision is expected in February on the SBAC tests, which are usually administered in May, French said.

PUTTING THE GO IN GOP?

In non-COVID questions, Scott was asked about a petition seeking to have him removed from the Vermont Republican Party. More than 1,100 people had signed the petition as of Friday.

The petition takes particular issue with Scott’s questioning of whether his party would “continue with what I perceive as white supremacy, dominating, racial inequity, and so forth.” Supporters of the petition noted the state GOP’s platform denounces white supremacy and racism.

On Jan 15, Scott said the party needed to do some “soul-searching” to determine whether it was would align itself with the politics of Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“I do have a number of people who are not supporters of mine That’s understandable,” Scott said Friday. “But I’m still a Republican at end of the day,” he said of his core beliefs over 20 years in politics. “That doesn’t change. I am who I am. I never professed to be anything different.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik joined New England Newspapers as a reporter at The Berkshire Eagle in 1995. He worked for The AP in Boston, and at ESPN.com, before rejoining NENI in 2016. He was managing editor of all three NENI Vermont newspapers from 2017-19.

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