The number of COVID cases and hospital admissions in Vermont continue to rise as the highly transmissible BA.2 variant moves through the state — and now an even newer subvariant with the complicated name BA.2.12.1 has arrived, while another gains momentum in Africa, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
But, Levine cautioned, the new cases do not appear to be as severe as the previous omicron outbreak, and most people who are vaccinated and have received at least one booster shot experience relatively mild symptoms.
“Unfortunately, this current wave of cases is not going down in Vermont,” the commissioner said at a press briefing Tuesday. “But COVID-19 activity remains magnitudes lower than what we saw in the initial omicron surge.”
As of Tuesday, 639 Vermonters have died from the virus. There are 62 in the hospital, with 10 in intensive care units, the Health Department reported.
He said the BA.2.12.1 subvariant is overtaking the Finger Lakes and central New York State region, and has been found in Vermont. He said the world is also watching a new omicron subvariant sweeping South Africa.
He said each person needs to take stock of their own risk factors — age, health risks, proximity to at-risk people, etc. — and decide how to stay safe. That might mean “giving serious consideration” to wearing high quality masks in indoor settings and getting tested for COVID if you experience symptoms.
He said all Vermonters should get at least one booster shot, especially those over 65 and others considered high risk.
“It is the booster that will keep you out of the hospital,” he said.
Levine said there have been 12 COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities around the state, always a concern given the age of the residents at senior living facilities. Although between 200 and 300 residents were affected by this latest outbreak, the number of deaths was low.
The commissioner said the federal government has sent Vermont 2,000 doses of Paxlovid, an antiviral medication for treating COVID-19 in outpatients with mild to moderate disease — a huge increase over the average 200 doses. Some of those will be sent to pharmacies and hospital pharmacies; some will be reserved for long-term care facilities.
“This will … prevent more potential cases of severe cases of COVID-19 in Vermont,” he said.
Gov. Phil Scott agreed, adding that the additional doses of Paxlovid “is going to be game-changer for us.”
Levine expressed optimism that the current wave of COVID cases will soon slow and decline.
Bird flu, too
On another issue, Levine said the state has detected cases of a “highly pathogenic avian influenza,” also known as bird flu, which was found in a backyard flock and wild birds in Vermont. He said Vermonters who have been exposed to those birds are being monitored by the Health Department for flu-like symptoms.
“While it’s spread is a concern, the public health risk is low,” he said. Levine said at this time, more than 2,500 people in the U.S. who have been exposed to birds or poultry with avian influenza have been monitored, and “reassuringly,” only one possible human case has been found.