MONTPELIER — State officials are keeping their eyes on a new coronavirus variant known as Omicron as it appears around the world.
“It’s important to remember there’s still a lot we don’t know and it could be a couple of weeks before we get more information,” Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “Until then, we’re not going to speculate and I would urge people to stay focused on the facts and what we know. We will be watching this closely.”
In response to the new development, Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and get booster shots. Anyone 18 or older is eligible for booster shots two months after taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after taking a second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
Other variants have popped up during the pandemic, and that’s to be expected with a virus, Levine said.
“Many variants disappear,” he said. “Some can persist and some can become the most prominent variant like Delta has become.”
Levine said the Omicron variant has been identified in many countries, including Canada in North America. Much is unknown about the severity of illness and effectiveness of current vaccines against the new variant, he said.
“Of course, we will report any detection of this variant in Vermont,” he said.
Not enough is known about the impacts of Omicron for Vermont to be “intimidated” by the variant, Levine said. He noted early data from South Africa suggests infected individuals experienced more mild and moderate illnesses.
“Some people had presentation of very significant fatigue,” he said. “No one was presenting with loss of taste or smell. This is very early and I would be very cautious with this information.”
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said COVID-19 cases are down nationally and in Vermont, but testing also has decreased during the Thanksgiving holiday. He anticipates case counts to go back to where they have recently been once testing returns to regular levels.
Hospitalizations are reaching all-time highs in Vermont. On Tuesday, the state reported having 84 people hospitalized for the virus.
The number went up by about 12 percent over the last week, Pieciak said. About 71 percent of those hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, according to his presentation.
“Those not fully vaccinated were 13.5 times more likely to require hospitalization in November compared to those who are fully vaccinated and boosted,” states a slide from the presentation.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is not at or exceeding capacity for handling COVID-19 patients as of now, hospital spokeswoman Gina Pattison said Tuesday morning in an email response to the Reformer.
"Like all hospitals around the state and region, BMH has a plan in place should an increase in COVID cases occur," Pattison said. "Additionally, we encourage community members to get vaccinated and/or boosted. The vaccine is safe and effective and will help keep people out of the hospital should they become infected. Also, it is important to continue with the simple measures that have been keeping Vermonters safe for so long: wear a mask, wash hands, and social distance."
Crescent Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Bennington has about 73 cases and two deaths associated with an outbreak at the facility, Levine said.
“Not to reduce the importance of it, but it really does appear this outbreak is the exception, not the rule,” he said.
None of the other long-term care facilities have such a high number of active cases, Levine said. He views the outbreak at Crescent Manor as a reflection of a community hit harder by the virus in recent weeks.
The second highest case count for an outbreak at a long-term care facility is 22 in one in Rutland and 22 in one in Burlington. Vermont Veterans’ Home in Bennington is reporting 12.
“We’re seeing most of the facilities being protected by the vaccines and boosters that have been provided to date,” Levine said.
Education Secretary Dan French said he’s hearing Vermont’s Test to Stay program is “going very well” in districts where students and staff are being tested for the virus more often in order to keep more students in classrooms. Schools are being urged to do more testing after the holiday.
French said the state is working on expanding the program to test students younger than 5 years old.
“This age cut-off seems arbitrary and capricious — perhaps an oversight?” Anne Rider of Guilford, whose grandchild is a student within Windham Southeast School District, wrote to French. “Many children attending our public schools are members of a pre-k classroom and are 4 years old. The irony of excluding them, the only kids in school who cannot yet be vaccinated, is notable. These are the very children that must be eligible for Test to Stay; it’s their only recourse for an uninterrupted education experience.”
A vaccination incentive program using federal funds is expected to launch later this week, French said. Schools can apply for a grant if they have a high percentage of students vaccinated and students can help decide how to spend the money.
The program had been announced earlier. French said he wanted to wait until elementary schools could be included when age eligibility for vaccination expanded.