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MONTPELIER — The first round of vaccinations started Wednesday morning at 25 clinics throughout the state for residents 75 years old and older, launching the state’s effort to vaccinate the state’s general population.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration said at a morning press briefing Wednesday that they hoped to have all people in the 75-and-old age group vaccinated in five weeks, and that people 70 and older, and then 65 and older would follow in turn. Those with special health conditions would follow the older aged groups.

Scott said that Vermont and other states were in line to get additional vaccine doses starting next week. He said during a conference call yesterday with the Biden administration, the nation’s governors were promised an increase of about 16 percent.

He said his goal was to “vaccinate our most vulnerable,” and to take care of those Vermonters, who “are most likely to die if they get sick.”

Before Wednesday’s clinics for the elderly, only health care workers, first responders and residents of nursing homes and congregate living had been vaccinated.

Michael Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said he had just learned that 860 doses at Springfield Hospital had to be discarded because of incorrect temperature storage. The Moderna vaccine was held at 9 degrees, he said, while it was supposed to be held at 8 degrees. He said it was the manufacturer’s decision to discard the vaccine.

He said the Department of Health would be launching an investigation to determine what went wrong.

Dr. Mark Levine, the health commissioner, said the vaccines were being stored in “exquisite” temperature-sensitive storage, so the one degree variance was very perplexing.

Spoiled vaccines is a problem not unique to Vermont. Many states in the past several weeks since the COVID vaccine effort got underway, have reported problems with keeping the vaccines at the required temperatures.

Scott and Smith said that about 400 of those discarded doses at Springfield were the second dose of the two-dose COVID inoculation. But Smith said that the administration would be making adjustments later in the day to make sure all people slated for their shots in Springfield would be getting them on time.

Reporters told Scott that they had heard from older Vermonters or their families who were having trouble signing up for the vaccine. Others said people had to travel far from their homes to get a shot. While the state has partnered with Kinney Drugs to provide clinics, there are no Kinney Drugstores in southern Vermont.

Smith said the number of clinics was established according to the elderly population in that county or area. But he pledged that if the number of clinics was inadequate, the state would add more sites.

In southern Vermont , there are clinics in Brattleboro, Bennington, Manchester, Rockingham, Weston and Springfield. The exact location of the clinics was not disclosed publicly but was given out to the residents who signed up for the shots.

The news about the vaccination clinics came as Vermont, the region, and even the country as a whole is experiencing a decline in the number of cases, officials said.

For the first time in weeks, the number of new cases — 78 — is under 100, Dr. Levine said.

There are currently 46 people hospitalized and eight in intensive care. There was another death, he said, bringing Vermont’s total to 172 people. Vaccination is not yet a factor in the declining number of cases, he said.

The Department of Health is working with 63 outbreaks, he said — 23 in senior housing or nursing homes, 27 in work places, and five in schools.

With the return of college students to the University of Vermont campus and Norwich University, there is an increase in cases revealed by the mandatory testing of the students, Levine said. There are 118 cases associated with the colleges. Testing is being done to determine whether the students have any of the new variants of the virus, which is believed to be more contagious, and in some cases, more virulent.

Wednesday marked the return to the normal press conference format, as Scott, Levine and Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak all cleared a second round of COVID testing after quarantining last week due to exposure.

Scott and others again defended their decision to base the state’s distribution of the vaccine on age, rather than occupation or potential exposure.

Scott said that it is strictly a matter of safety: 90 percent of the people who have died in the state from COVID were 65 years old or older, and the state’s goal is to prevent any more deaths.

The governor said the state wants to be open and honest with residents, and not to raise expectations unreasonably.

Pieiciak said that Bennington County has the highest number of cases, which could be traced to its proximity to New York state, as there might be “spillover.” The town of Bennington is responsible for 21 percent of all the positive cases, he said.

While Smith said there have been a few “glitches” with the rollout of the vaccine registration, the state is working to address those problems. He said the state’s call centers were almost all staffed by Vermonters. At the end of the day Wednesday, Smith said he expects 30,000 Vermonters aged 75 and older will have registered for vaccines, which is more than half of that age group.

Scott closed the press conference by again urging Vermonters to be careful and vigilant, even if they have been vaccinated. It takes weeks for immunity to be established, he said. “You are not invincible, you still need to wear a mask,” he said.

The governor, in answer to a question from a reporter, said that in the event one of Vermont’s congressional delegation is no longer able to serve, he promises to appoint someone from the same party, despite his party affiliation.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is 80 years old, was taken to a Washington, D.C. hospital Tuesday afternoon after not feeling well. Leahy, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, is slated to preside over the upcoming impeachment hearings of former President Donald Trump.

After a brief stay in the hospital Tuesday, Leahy was back home Tuesday evening.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.

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