By Erin Petenko/VTDigger
Vermont is now getting 22% more vaccine doses per week from the federal government than its previous allocation just weeks ago, Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday, Feb. 2.
Scott learned in a call with other governors that morning that doses would increase another 5%, on top of an 8% increase announced last week by the Biden administration, which is working to boost the number of doses sent to states. Compounded, Scott said, the increase works out to 22%.
That means Vermont will get about 10,800 doses a week for at least the next three weeks, a time frame that Scott said will aid greatly in planning ahead for administering the vaccine.
“This is just preliminary information — hot off the press, so to speak — and we’ll have more details in the days to come, but suffice it to say this is good news for us here in Vermont and throughout the country,” he said.
The federal government would also provide two other sources of help to increase doses: Providing the tools to Vermont to get the extra dose out of Pfizer vaccine vials, and providing some vaccines directly to pharmacies in a pilot project.
“I appreciate the collaboration with the White House, and look forward to receiving more doses so we can vaccinate others as fast as possible, and start getting back to whatever normal is,” Scott said.
As of Tuesday, over 55,000 Vermonters have been vaccinated — 35,500 first doses and 19,500 second doses. That’s about 9.7% of Vermont residents age 16 and over that have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the Department of Health reported Tuesday.
Vermont to be reimbursed millions
Scott also learned on the call that Vermont would get millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as retroactive reimbursement for National Guard operations in 2020.
Previously, Vermont had been expected to provide 25% of the Guard’s funding, but that requirement has now been eliminated and the state will be refunded what it spent last year, which could mean millions of dollars per month, Scott said.
“We don’t know all the details and we’ll look into that and hopefully be able to update you on what that could mean, but safely say it’s millions of dollars that will be coming back to Vermont in some respects,” Scott said.
The Guard was used last year to staff the state’s medical surge sites.
Mike Smith, head of the Agency of Human Services, said the National Guard could also be deployed to assist with vaccine distribution if the allocation rose past the state’s capacity under its original plan.
Cases up in Bennington County
Covid cases in Vermont dropped for the third week in a row, but cases in Bennington County remain high, driving up hospitalizations statewide, officials said at the press conference Tuesday, Feb. 2.
The state reported 868 Covid cases in the past week, a 29% decline from the peak of a mid-January surge, according to a report from the Department of Financial Regulation. National cases are down 42% from their peak and regional cases are down 37%.
At the same time, Bennington County has been setting records in its case counts, including its highest-ever total of 40 cases in a day on Jan. 30. Department of Financial Regulation data shows that, if Bennington County hospitalizations were excluded, the total number of people hospitalized in Vermont would be declining, but that county’s numbers are driving the statewide total up.
The Bennington hospital, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, is “coping well” with the new clinical load, said Dr. Mark Levine, head of the Dept. of Health.
He said the latest rise in Bennington County numbers could be attributed to several potential issues: Several multihousehold gatherings prior to the holidays led to outbreaks, and out-of-state skiers could have passed along the virus to workers in the community, although the skiers themselves would not be counted in the data.
“There have been, not only on the site of a ski resort, but in the communities that are part of the ski resorts, cases that show up in worksites and in restaurants, to the point where in one or two times, several of those had to close due to staffing issues,” he said.
Some New York residents who work or receive medical care in Vermont may also be driving up the county’s numbers, Levine said.
In addition, college cases have been an issue as students return to the state for the spring semester. Vermont reported 39 student cases this week compared to 118 last week, but the latest numbers did not include the University of Vermont.
Norwich University’s outbreak among students rose to 94 cases this week, Levine said. The health department is working with Norwich to refine its testing protocol, along with testing a variety of college samples to see if any of them could be one of the Covid variants circulating elsewhere in the country.
Long-term care case progress
The number of high-risk cases in Vermont is declining, likely driving a decrease in deaths.
The state had 27 deaths in January compared to 71 in December, according to the state report. The number of cases among Vermonters 65 and over has also declined in recent weeks as conditions improve statewide.
Levine said there have been fewer cases in long-term care facilities as well.
Smith said people at all 37 skilled nursing facilities have received both doses of the vaccine. About 87% at residential care facilities and 94% at assisted living facilities have received at least the first dose.
In total, 85% of long-term care residents have elected to receive the first dose of the vaccine, Smith said.
Levine said it was difficult to say whether the decline in cases could be the result of the vaccinations. “I would love to say that what we’re seeing in the long-term cares is related to the vaccine, but that would be a little guesswork and a little premature,” he said.
The state has convened a working group to discuss opening up new activities for long-term care residents, such as social gatherings and events to allow people to socialize within the facility. “Seniors have been isolated for far too long,” Smith said.
Levine said discussion hasn’t included family visits, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The state briefly resumed family visits at a low point of the virus last year.
“There’ll be plenty [of family members] that will not have yet received their vaccine,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve the lives of those, those facilities with the activities and social arrangements that can be made within the facility.”