This week saw another Northeast Kingdom resident die of COVID-19.
According to the Vermont Health Department, a Caledonia County resident died of the coronavirus within the past several days. This is the 2nd Caledonia County resident to die of COVID in as many weeks and brings the county total to 11 deaths. The NEK has now seen 26 COVID deaths, with 2 in Essex County and 13 in Orleans County.
The region also crossed the 4,000 total cases threshold this week and has now seen 4,025 total cases, with 2,100 cases in Orleans County, 1,503 cases in Caledonia and 422 cases in Essex, as of Wednesday’s report.
Despite these developments in the NEK, state officials say there are early signs that the Delta variant surge beginning to ebb. During the state’s media briefing with Gov. Phil Scott and other officials, they noted cases were beginning to fall around the state, region and country.
“If the trend we are seeing continues it could put us at a point where lower numbers coincide with FDA vaccination approval for children under 12, which as we discussed would be a huge step forward,” said Scott Tuesday, referring to reports that it is anticipated Pfizer will receive temporary use authorization for its vaccination for younger recipients in the weeks ahead.
“We are starting to see some real progress across the country and we are also, fortunately, starting to see some improvement in the region and most importantly here in Vermont,” affirmed DFR Commissioner Micheal Pieciak, who oversees the state’s COVID data and modeling.
Pieciak noted states that saw an earlier Delta surge and have since had a reduction in cases have shown steady and consistent drops in cases and that could be good news for Vermont, which lagged other states by several weeks for the onset of Delta.
While cases around New England are down 8% week over week, Pieciak did note cases were elevated in New Hampshire and Maine, and the Northeast Kingdom continued to stay elevated compared to the rest of the state, with Essex County being just one of two counties in the state that saw cases increase this week along with Orange County.
Over the last 2 weeks Vermont has seen a 23% reduction in the 7-day average of new cases, said Pieciak. In that same time frame, the NEK saw a 17.25% reduction in the daily average - from 40 cases per day on Sept. 20 to an average of 33.1 cases per day on Oct. 4.
“You can see that cases are still elevated in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Pieciak. “You can really see that stand out in the county by county slide that Orleans County and Essex continue to have elevated case counts, although there was some appointments in Orleans this week.”
Pieciak also noted that recent new hospitalizations have dropped across the state, which is a positive sign of things to come.
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said state officials are considering adopting the state’s new take-home testing strategy being developed for schools for the general population. This is a strategy in which schools are equipped with take-home test kits that they can provide to students and staff that may develop symptoms, or be identified as close contacts. The take-home kits would have everything necessary to self administer a PCR test and ship to the lab, to speed up results and access to testing. This, in turn, would minimize lost time in school.
“We are actively looking at deploying take-home testing for those areas that don’t have access to other forms of testing,” said Smith. “So stand by, we are actively looking at that right now.” Smith said they are considering if this could be effective for more rural areas where access to testing is limited, such as Essex County.
Gov. Phil Scott and State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso also indicated the state is considering whether the newly announced “Test to Stay” program in schools could be developed for wider use.
This is a strategy in which close contacts who are asymptomatic could stay in school if a rapid antigen test is taken each morning and comes back negative. Scott said he thought this was a possibility and deferred to Kelso, who noted the risk profile for infection while in school is potentially significantly different from the wider population and worksites.
“I would say for right now, we are implementing [Test to Stay] in schools, but, I agree with the governor, I think that is where we are going,” said Kelso. State officials have spoken about how the state’s strategy needs to evolve to recognize that the coronavirus is likely going to become an endemic virus that is persistent within society and needs to be managed and mitigated through a variety of strategies, including ongoing vaccination, and expanded testing.
“I think that is where we are going but I wouldn’t want to go there next week,” said Kelso.