Gov. Phil Scott warned Tuesday that the rate of positive COVID-19 cases — already at record levels — will continue to sharply increase in the coming weeks, hopefully leveling off and falling in late January or early February.
“It’s clear cases will continue to increase for a while,” the governor said at a news conference. He and others in his administration stressed that the rapidly spreading omicron variant now accounts for 96 percent of all COVID cases, essentially replacing the delta variant in Vermont and across the nation.
Asked if he worried about future school or business closures, given the record-breaking COVID numbers, Scott replied, “That is a concern.” But, he added, “Our main concern throughout has been hospitalizations and deaths.”
“Lots of people are going to get omicron. Many are talking about not if, but when,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine. But he noted that people who are vaccinated and have received their boosters probably won’t be seriously affected; the unvaccinated, however, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death.
“This is probably the most disruptive month we will have endured … we’re navigating yet another phase of this pandemic,” Levine added. “We hope this difficult transition period will ultimately get us to a time when we can live with this virus much more easily.”
Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m., the Vermont Department of Health will launch a pilot project, enabling Vermonters to order up to two free rapid at-home test kits — each containing two tests — from the department’s website at healthvermont.gov. The state has about 500,000 tests that will be sent in addition to a similar program the federal government plans to launch by month’s end, as well as the at-home tests being distributed by schools.
“We expect them to go quickly,” Scott said. The governor said the PCR tests, which take days for results to be reported, are simply too slow to keep up with the rapid spread of omicron cases. He said Vermont will be shifting increasingly to the rapid response tests as they become available. Schools are also doing less testing and contact tracing, and instead sending rapid tests home with students and asking families to test and notify contacts if positive results are determined.
Michael Pieciak, Financial Regulation commissioner, said there have been 380,000 cases in New England this week; he said for every case that it reported, there are probably four or five that are not reported.
Vermont’s cases are up about 70 percent in the past seven days, he said. “You can see the impact omicron has had in Vermont,” Pieciak said.
Education Secretary Daniel French said he will be deciding soon whether schools that have closed because of COVID-driven staffing shortages and shifted to online teaching are eligible for a waiver so those days will not count as full-closure days — as snow days did pre-pandemic.
He did not know how many schools have closed because of staffing shortages, but predicted there would be more in the coming weeks, given the spread of omicron.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care doctor at the University of Vermont’s Children’s Hospital and president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy, said health care workers started this pandemic in 2020 uncertain and scared. Now, with hospitals short-staffed and overworked, “many feel this is their breaking point.”
Bell said she supports at-home testing being taken off the duties of school nurses and given to parents. She urged parents to get their eligible children vaccinated. And, she said, parents should be patient with pediatricians and family providers, who are overworked at this time, as they seek nonmedical care for their children, such as sports physicals.
Levine said the Health Department’s COVID-19 caseload daily webpage failed over the weekend, and will be corrected Wednesday. It appears about 4,375 additional positive results were left off over a two or three day period because of a technical glitch.