Gov. Phil Scott and his administration unveiled a number of new initiatives and provided further details on Vermont’s response to COVID-19 and rapidly accelerating cases due to the Omicron variant.
Many of the announcements made Tuesday during the state’s coronavirus briefing revolved around the expanded use of at-home, rapid antigen tests.
Gov. Phil Scott said starting today (Wednesday, Jan. 12) the state will have 250,000 rapid test kits available to be distributed to Vermonters through the mail in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. The kits can be ordered at a maximum of 2 kits (4 total tests) through the Vermont Health Department website. Kits in the first allocation are expected to go quickly.
In addition, rapid, at-home tests will be distributed to families of students to be used in a modification of the Test to Stay program in which families will test their children at home rather than school staff conducting the testing when children are dropped off at the start of the school day. State officials are winding down the PCR surveillance testing that many schools had been conducting on a weekly basis in favor of the rapid testing. The rapid tests will be available for school staff as well, say officials.
Vermont is also ramping up a new Test for Tots program, a similar program to Test to Stay at school, that would allow younger children considered close contacts to remain in participating daycares.
The tests will be distributed by the participating schools and daycares in the days ahead as details and distribution are finalized.
“This is an important transition in our response to the pandemic,” said Agency of Education Secretary Dan French, noting AOE and Health officials were still working through details of the new system and additional test kits were being provided to schools in the days ahead.
“[Schools] can transition to this new system when they feel they have an adequate supply of tests to do so, which I feel for many schools will be later this week,” said French.
Part of the changing guidance for schools also includes a rethinking of contact tracing. State officials said contact tracing as it had been conducted was a drain on school resources and less effective given how transmissible Omicron is. The new approach, which the state labeled “response notification,” would result in everyone who was in a classroom with a COVID-positive student being notified of the exposure risk as opposed to school officials attempting to identify only those students who match the specific close contact criteria. State officials said this will result in a larger group of people being alerted to a possible exposure sooner. They would then be provided the rapid tests kits and advised on the Test to Stay protocols.
State officials warned, though, that January is predicted to be a challenging month for the state, given the sudden spike of cases from Omicron. DFR Commissioner Michael Pieciak said the state’s modeling suggested cases would rise throughout the month of January before dropping in February.
Specific data about recent cases is not available from the state as the data team works through a technical glitch that resulted in the delay of over 8,000 PCR test results in recent days. The state hopes to update the state’s COVID dashboard at some point today (Wednesday). It has not been updated since Sunday and an alert on the dashboard says numbers for Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be revised along with the new results for the current week.
“I know what a difficult time this is, probably the most disruptive month we will have endured,” warned Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine in his comments.
Levine said this month could be part of the shift of coronavirus from pandemic to endemic, similar to the flu, where we have enough community immunity, vaccines and treatments so there is a reduced public health concern with COVID.
“We hope this difficult transition period will help us get to a time when we can live with this more easily,” said Levine, who added the state’s shifting response efforts were a reflection of how Omicron’s speed of transmission had rendered current measures less effective.
“I acknowledge we are shifting some responsibility to homes,” noted Levine of the new Test to Stay approach. Both he and Dr. Rebeca Bell, President of Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in many ways the state had been relying on individuals to do the right thing and abide by mitigation measures throughout the whole pandemic and the shift in testing responsibility was no different. They also said the new measures were the appropriate response to Omicron.