With rapid testing results mostly unknown, hospitalization and death rates are better barometers
By Polly Mikula
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine presented the weekly modeling of Covid-19 in Vermont at the weekly press conference, Tuesday, Feb. 22. The charts showed a continued decline of Covid cases in the state, with hospitalizations stable — death rates have yet to decline “with four more recorded in the past four days,” according to Levine.
While recorded case rates declined 44% over the past 14 days, Levine was quick to caution Vermonters about an important change in testing methods. Over the past few weeks, the state has increasingly encouraged rapid antigen testing over PCR tests. Quicker results allow folks to isolate faster reducing the potential for further spread, Levine stated. But the results are most often not reported to the state. Only a tiny fraction are thought to be self reported on the health department website.
“We really don’t have a good handle on how many people are doing these [rapid] tests on a regular or semi-regular basis and what their results are,” Levine said. “All we know is that the need to access our own state PCR testing sites seems to be diminishing and they’re making up a smaller proportion of all of the cases as well. So the reality is I don’t think cases are ever going to again represent a great way of having your finger on the pulse of the of the pandemic. They’re just another piece of data that we integrate in with everything else,” he said. “We need to look at other indicators to really know how much of an
impact this virus is having on our population at large and on our healthcare system, and hospitalizations, and hospital capacity.”
In terms of hospitalizations, “the rate of new hospitalizations have stabilized and we saw a 20% decrease in patients hospitalized with Covid-19 over the previous week. The trend that we expect will continue in the coming weeks,” Levine said, adding that the number of Vermonters in the ICU for Covid has dropped by a third to the lowest level since last October.
Regarding fatalities: Vermont has recorded “more than 587 Covid related deaths with an additional four reported over the past four days,” Levine said. “This metric takes the longest to reflect the impact of improving case numbers,” he added. “Nonetheless, as we continue to watch these downward trajectories, we can see where we are headed, which is a time of less transmission and disease in our state.”
Individual risk assessments
Levine said the state plans to gradually shift toward fewer broad based public health recommendations to a more individualized approach. “This will mean a strategy that is based on how we all have different levels of risk and will need to navigate them and manage precautions in our own way at our own pace,” he said.
“Considering our own individual risk will become part of our own decision making decisions to translate into our routine daily day to day acts to protect ourselves and the people around us.
I understand that it has been and will continue to be harder for people who are at higher risk of more severe illness. And we cannot leave behind these Vermonters and anyone who faces personal historical or cultural health equity challenges within our communities, we will all need to understand a person’s need to take extra precautions and support their needs. Remember, the person who wears a mask has their own good reasons to do so. And we need to respect their reasoning and be understanding as mask policies evolve. We cannot let wearing a mask become a political statement or cause for dividing us.”
“And once the virus transmission decreases Vermonters will not need to get tested as often, such as before and after social gatherings as overall risk will be much lower,” Levine said.
New variant: BA2
A new Covid sub variant of the Omicron virus has been detected in 47 states and Vermont and “is causing concern in some parts of the world,” Levine said. “We do need to expect new variants of the virus. Some variants may emerge and disappear while others persist… We are still learning a lot about this variant and any possible impact on transmissibility and severity and there is not yet any definitive word… Except that does seem to be a little more transmissible perhaps 1.4 times more transmissible than the traditional [Omnicon],” he said.
According to a report from the CDC that Levine receives weekly, Vermont had about 2.8% Delta, 96% the traditional BA1 Omicron, which leaves 1-2% BA2 variant, Levine said noting that that data only reflected cases only through January.