vaccine

A nurse readies a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital earlier this year. Registration for vaccinations continues this weekend with 16- and 17-year-olds on Saturday, and all Vermonters 16 and older on Monday.

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MONTPELIER — The state is opening vaccination appointments to its youngest eligible recipients a few days early.

Vermonters ages 16-18 will be able to sign up for the Pfizer vaccine, with their parent or guardian’s consent, as of 10 a.m. Saturday, Gov. Phil Scott announced during his bi-weekly news conference on Friday.

Following the news from the CDC and FDA this morning regarding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the Scott Administration’s twice-weekly COVID-19 response media briefing has been moved from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. to allow Governor Scott, Secretary Smith, Commissioner Levine and others to hear from the White House directly on a pre-scheduled 11 a.m. phone call for governors and White House officials.

That age group was to have been part of the final age banding of residents permitted to sign up on Monday. But Scott said since only one vaccine has been approved for use by children under 18, he decided to open the door for 16, 17 and 18 year olds a few days in advance.

Scott said the slight change was more than fair to younger Vermonters who have given up a great deal over the past 14 months. He hopes the head start will help older high school students “possibly enjoy the end of the school year in a much more normal way,” including high school graduation.

Sign-ups for Vermonters aged 18 through 29 will begin at 6 a.m. Monday, two hours earlier than previously scheduled.

The opening of that final age band comes as the state announced it has administered at least one dose of vaccine to more than half of eligible Vermonters. According to Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith, a total of 279,400 residents have been vaccinated, with 92,900 receiving their first dose and 186,500 getting their last dose.

“It is remarkable and exciting how far we’ve come,” Smith said.

“It’s quite a significant milestone,” added Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. “Seeing that statistic go up every day is really encouraging.”

A year ago, Smith said, the state was struggling with limited testing capability; now, testing is widely available and Smith urged Vermonters to continue availing themselves of that resource, as well as following health and safety guidelines. He also thanked Vermonters for their patience and perseverance.

“Although we must remain vigilant ... there is much hope,” Smith said

With federal health officials still advising a “pause” on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to a rare form of blood clot that affected six women out of a total of 6.8 million doses, Scott said the state would not deviate from that advice despite the very low risk, and noted no other states have done so, either.

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“As we’ve done from the very beginning we listened to the health experts,” Scott said.

He is hopeful Johnson & Johnson appointments will resume next week. In the meantime, Smith said all Johnson & Johnson appointments have been canceled through Friday, April 23. About 400 appointments beyond April 23 have yet to be canceled, as the state is hoping the pause will be over by then.

Anyone with a Johnson & Johnson appointment who has bot been contacted by the state should call the state vaccine line at 855-722-7878, Smith said.

Levine said the state’s seven-day case average continues to trend downward. The state’s positivity rate stands at 1.9 percent, as of Friday, with 26 people presently hospitalized and three of those in intensive care.

However, the B.1.1.7 variant of the COVID-19 virus, also known as the UK variant, has now been detected in 10 of the state’s 14 counties, Levine said, adding it’s likely that will become the dominant strain of the virus.

“It’s a stark indicator of why adherence to prevention measures is important, even now,” Levine said.

According to the Health Department’s website, a single case of that variant has been detected in both Bennington and Windham counties. But Levine cautioned that residents shouldn’t base their travel plans or behavior on that data, because the variant spreads more easily.

The number of deaths from the pandemic has increased to 242 as of Friday, Levine said.

Education Secretary Daniel French announced the Vermont Department of Children and Families will be administering a temporary food benefit for children who receive free and reduced meals at schools.

The benefit, intended to help children in hybrid and remote learning afford meals that would otherwise be offered for free or at reduced cost, will be provided to 33,00 students in 21,844 households. Families eligible for the benefit should be notified by mail by April 29, French said.

French also said the Agency of Education will be soon be publishing guidance on end-of-year events and graduation. “We’re optimistic schools will be able to hold many of thee events,” he said.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.