Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

For the first time in a long time, Gov. Phil Scott and his administration had good news to report Tuesday on the COVID front, with case counts steadily dropping in recent days and hospitalizations leveling off after setting records.

“Trends in our region are encouraging,” the governor said at his weekly news conference.

That view was reinforced by the data: 420 Vermonters tested positive for COVID on Tuesday, reflecting a steady decline from the record-setting reports in recent weeks of well over 2,000 cases per day; the percent of cases on a seven-day average dropped to 11.4 percent Tuesday after reaching a rate of over 13 percent; and the number of open hospital beds and availability in intensive care units have increased.

“There is some really good news here in terms of the trends we’re seeing,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. “We anticipate this trend will continue … that we’ll see cases come down in Vermont.” He said he expects that February will see “much lower” numbers than now, adding, “The trend down is occurring more quickly than we thought.”

Also significant are the numbers seen in South Africa and other nations where omicron got an early start; those countries are seeing significant declines in cases.

Bennington County saw 64 new COVID cases on Tuesday. Windham County had 18 new reported cases.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine warned, “I want to preach against overconfidence.” There is still high transmission of the omicron variant.

Still, his team planned to begin talks with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday about a “transition to the point in time we can really feel like the virus is at a lower level. This is the time for us to begin thinking about how that world will look for all of us. What comes after omicron? We hope that omicron does what it did in South Africa and really gets suppressed to a low level.”

While college campuses have seen cases drop, long-term care facilities are still experiencing serious case counts. Pieciak said there are 25 outbreaks at long-term facilities, with 325 active cases.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

“This has affected the elderly more than anyone else,” the governor said.

Deaths because of COVID hit 593 on Tuesday, with 43 in January. That number will likely continue to climb for two to three weeks because death numbers lag behind case counts; in other words, as cases decline, the death rate will eventually fall, as well.

“Every death is tragic,” Scott said. “While we are one of the leaders in the nation in terms of deaths per capita, it still means something when it’s a family member, friend, colleague who has passed away because of the virus.”

Levine said he’s heard people asking if they should intentionally contract COVID to build immunity. His answer was clear: “My answer is no.”

Every case puts others, including vulnerable Vermonters and those too young for vaccination, at risk. Hospitals are still strained by a workforce shortage, even milder symptoms can be miserable, and health care officials still don’t know much about omicron or long-COVID and its effects.

While the case counts have declined, which is good news, COVID remains a threat, Scott said. He stressed that Vermonters still need to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks in indoor settings, stay home if they are not feeling well, and take other steps to stay safe and healthy — and keep others healthy.

Levine noted that COVID variants can quickly change.

“We need to remember COVID is still here,” he said. “It is not going away just yet.”