MONTPELIER — Data shows COVID-19 case counts slowing around the country, region and Vermont, giving state officials some optimism as vaccination efforts continue.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, said the numbers suggest the United States could be surpassing its “third peak” in the coronavirus pandemic.
“Just one week ago, we reported that the pandemic had been at its worse,” he said Tuesday at the governor’s twice weekly news conference on the state’s response to the pandemic. “Cases, deaths and hospitalizations were all at all-time highs.”
Pieciak described being more optimistic after receiving data from the past seven days showing the country’s case count had decreased by 18 percent. He said it is the first sustained decrease in cases not associated with reduced testing.
“More encouraging,” he said, “case growth is slowing in every region of the country.”
Pieciak said 41 states experienced a decrease in cases over the last week and for six straight days, there’s been a decrease in national hospitalizations — “something that hasn’t happened since September.” But he anticipates the number of deaths will remain high for the next few weeks and a new, more transmissible variant of the virus could become the dominant strain by March based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The northeast recorded more than 185,000 new cases for the last week, a 12.43 percent decrease from the prior week. Pieciak called it the “most significant reduction we’ve seen in months.”
“Here in Vermont, while our cases have slowed a bit, we did add an additional 1,000 cases in just the last six days, bringing us over the 10,000 case threshold,” he said. “Vermont was the last state to reach the 10,000 case mark, taking us 315 days from our first case. And even though our cases continue to remain high, we continue to have the lowest per capita case count for the pandemic.”
Over the last week, the state had 1,129 new cases, which Pieciak described as a reduction from the prior week but still significantly high. He said the seven-day case average in Vermont is starting to decrease, “suggesting the holiday impact we did see is not continuing to fuel new cases, again a very positive early sign.”
“Over the past four days, case counts have trended downward from 180 to 140 to 123 to 102, and testing did not seem to suffer over the holiday weekend,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said, adding that he believes the state’s 2.6 percent positivity rate is “truly reflective of reality.”
Levine said he thinks any cases related to the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays are “over with.”
Local towns near ski resorts are the darkest color on a map depicting COVID-19 cases in each community, indicating there are more than 80 cases per 100,000 people in a two-week period from Dec. 31 to Jan 13. Case counts for the period included 54 in Dover, 33 in Whitingham, 52 in Wilmington, 26 in Winhall and six in Woodford.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Windham-6, told the Reformer he’d like more information about whether efforts to enforce masking and social distancing has been effective at the Mount Snow ski resort in West Dover. He agrees with state officials who say transmission is less likely occurring while skiing than social activities associated with the sport.
“I’ll be frank,” he said. “When I ski, I bring Clif Bars. I don’t go inside.”
Gannon said it’s unclear whether skiers or other visitors from out-of-state are spreading COVID-19 in the local communities or it’s the result of people traveling and getting together over the winter holidays. He noted the uptick in cases in Vermont following Halloween, when he doubted many tourists were around.
At the news conference, Gov. Phil Scott said it has been 10 months since Vermont reported its first death related to the virus.
“We’ve lost 163 Vermonters to this terrible virus since the start of this pandemic,” he said. “This is not just a number.”
Scott said parents, coaches, mentors and neighbors died from COVID-19. He ordered flags to be flown at half staff for victims of the virus.
“We must all remember them,” he said. “But the best way we can honor them is to each do our part.”
Starting next week, Vermonters who are 75 and older can sign up to be vaccinated. Scott said the next age category will be 70 and older then 65 and older then those with certain high risk conditions.
The plan is about prioritizing those most likely to die, as the vaccine is currently in short supply.
“We believe preserving life must be our top priority,” Scott said. “It’s true some states have started with broader eligibility than us ... Overpromising isn’t the answer ... If allotted more, we’ll scale up, which we hope will be the case.”
Scott urged friends and families to help non-tech-savvy people sign up for the vaccine. A website link and phone number will be announced in the coming days, he said.
More than 30,000 Vermonters are vaccinated now, Levine said. Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, anticipates an additional 9,075 doses will be coming to the state this week.
Gannon told the Reformer he agrees with the vaccination plan being based on age but would like to see workers who come into contact with multiple people during a shift prioritized. He said many employees in retail, restaurants and grocery stores are only getting minimum wage and should be protected. Like Levine, he anticipates herd immunity won’t be achieved around summertime.