MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said that, like many others, he’s “happy to put 2020 in the rearview mirror.”
“But clearly, we still have much more to do as we work to get vaccines distributed to more Vermonters,” he said at the twice weekly news conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, where he noted more residents are dying from COVID-19 each day. “When I see two, four, five deaths listed, I feel the responsibility squarely on my shoulders and I take each one of them personally.”
Scott recalled when in the summer and into the fall, Vermont went months without reporting a single COVID-related death and new cases regularly remained in the single digits. Over the last month, he said, “we rarely go a day without someone dying because of this virus.”
At the time of the news conference, the state had recorded 149 deaths altogether. December has been described as Vermont’s “deadliest month” in the pandemic.
Public health strategies are focused on protecting the elderly and vulnerable, Scott said. He described vaccines as “the best and quickest way” for life to return to normal.
Age and health conditions are prioritized in the state’s vaccination distribution plans, Scott said. He urged patience and compassion while people wait to get their doses.
“Please don’t call us to get you or your loved ones on the list,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. “Vermonters will know when it’s your turn to step up for the vaccine.”
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said the plan is to have vaccinations at all skilled nursing facilities finished this week and residential care/assisted living facilities completed by the middle of January, with all emergency medical services and health care personnel vaccinated by end of the month.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, anticipates testing could be affected by the two most recent holidays similar to the way it was for Thanksgiving when less asymptomatic people were getting tested. He said more time is needed to know the potential impact of Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“We’ll need to keep this in mind and avoid making conclusions until the data becomes more certain,” he said.
The Northeast region is reporting more than 175,000 cases this week, which Pieciak described as a 20 percent increase from last week and the biggest number since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the region’s testing decreased by about 14 percent since Christmas, causing the positivity rate to go up to about 10 percent, which is about double the figure recommended by the World Health Organization.
Vermont was expected to report its 8,000th case on Tuesday, with an additional 1,000 having been recorded in the last 10 days. The state’s positivity rate increased to 2.63 percent but it is still much lower than the region, Pieciak said. While Vermont still stands out for low case counts nationwide, as it is second only to Hawaii now according to seven-day averages, he noted the southernmost part of the state has experienced higher case counts in the last few weeks.
Pieciak said cases at long-term care facilities dropped from 513 last week to 451 this week and the hope is that trend will continue. Active outbreaks include Holton Home in Brattleboro, where cases total 11, and the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, which has eight cases.
Levine said epidemiological teams are learning about some holiday gatherings. He expects to have a more thorough analysis prepared for Friday’s news conference.
“But the most important thing I want to impress on people at this time is to get tested,” he said. “Whether you gathered in a single household, whether you broke the rules and saw more people over the holidays or you had a potential exposure to someone who has COVID, please get tested. There’s still time to protect our loved ones and communities.”
Testing allows those who test positive to isolate and identify close contacts who should stay away from people, Levine said. Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
Levine urged honesty when sharing information with his department.
“Contact tracers don’t enforce rules and you won’t get in trouble,” he said. “Contact tracing can really stop the virus in its track but only when we know who has it.”
He counted 15 regular testing locations statewide.