Spike in new cases

This chart from the Vermont Department of Health shows the recent growth in new COVID-19 cases, with the greatest increases among young adults.

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BENNINGTON — The COVID-19 vaccination rate at the Vermont Veterans’ Home among patient-facing employees stands at 40 percent, but state health officials are working at convincing workers that it’s in their best interest to roll up their sleeves.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine recently held an informational online session for workers at the Veterans’ Home to address workers’ concerns. It paid off, Levine said during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing: he was told between 10 and 12 workers signed up for vaccinations after the presentation.

However, Levine said the overall rate is below 50 percent of patient-facing workers. “So we want to do better.”

Staff cases of COVID-19 at the facility are still mounting. The Veterans’ Home said PCR testing on April 1 identified one new staff member with COVID-19, bringing the number of staff with positive tests in the current outbreak to 11.

The Veterans’ Home is not alone: The state is approaching its highest-ever 14-day average of new cases, according to statistics released Friday. The seven-day average is at its highest ever.

Levine blamed the increase on a number of more-transmissible variants of the virus that are being found in Vermont, and among young people who are more socially active but not yet eligible to be vaccinated. He urged them to avoid gatherings where virus transmission is more likely.

“The bottom line is Vermont is no longer the one green state in a map of red COVID cases across the U.S.,” Levine said. “We are just like all the other states in our region, a region that is currently doing even worse than some other parts of the country with more disease circulating right now.”

Vermont Veterans’ Home CEO Melissa Jackson said the reasons more workers are not vaccinated vary. Some are concerned the vaccine is new; others are child-bearing age and are concerned about how it might affect pregnancy and the health of future children; and others are simply opposed.

Fifty-two percent of healthcare workers surveyed in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll said they had received at least one dose at the time they were surveyed. More than 1 in 3 were not confident vaccines have been adequately tested.

To overcome those concerns, Levine said he spoke to workers about their specific concerns, rather than delivering a lecture.

“The real goal of this is to get at each person’s concerns,” Levine said, assuring “a safe environment to talk with us about this in so that we’re not there to coerce them or twist their arm, or just lecture them about how wonderful the vaccine is.”

“But we really want to get an idea of where we can help them make inroads, if they’ve been hesitant, why, and through education and responding to their specific needs can we move them forward?” Levine said.

Jackson said the session was “really great” and was recorded for workers to watch later. Another session with Levine has been scheduled.

About 60 percent of the home’s total workforce of about 200 are vaccinated, Jackson said. A little over 100 of those workers are patient-facing workers, such as licensed practical nurses and registered nurses.

Under the home’s protocols, all indoor visits are suspended immediately, while window visits may continue.

“It’s been a long road for everybody involved,” Jackson said.

The most recent death of a home resident from complications of the disease occurred on Feb. 14, after the person was reported hospitalized in early February. Another resident was hospitalized in early January and was reported on Jan. 20 to have died.

State officials say the good news is that ever greater numbers of Vermonters are being vaccinated, helping to limit deaths from COVID-19 and hospitalization among older Vermonters. Vaccinations will open to all Vermonters age 16 and over on April 19.

Gov. Phil Scott, a long-time race car driver, said the state was in the equivalent of the last 10 laps of a long race. He said it wasn’t the time to take off your helmet or five-point seatbelt harness.

“As tired as you are of going through this and all the restrictions and everything that comes along with it, now is not the time to let up,” Scott said. “Now is the time to really buckle in and make sure you pay attention, hit your marks and lead the race.”

Many people have been emphasizing the benign nature of most coronavirus infections when people don’t get that sick, and that might be lulling some into complacency, Levine said.

“We shouldn’t assume that it’s a benign condition for everyone,” he said.

COVID-19 can be a significant problem for some young people, including hospitalization and some long-lasting symptoms. If enough people are infected, the small percentage who suffer severe symptoms is going to represent a greater number of individuals, he said.

Numbers

On Friday, the Vermont Department of Health reported 201 new cases of the virus, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to more than 19,750.

There were 32 people hospitalized, including four in intensive care.

The state reported one additional fatality, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to 228.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont has risen over the past two weeks from 106.71 new cases per day on March 17 to 186.86 new cases per day on March 31.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 0.86 deaths per day on March 17 to 0.57 deaths per day on March 31.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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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