Leading The Nation To The Safest COVID-19 State In U.S.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine speaks during a media briefing in Montpelier. (File Photo)

The Vermont Health Department reported this week that the Delta variant has been confirmed in the Northeast Kingdom, a worrisome development for local health officials.

According to the Health Department, the COVID-19 Delta variant has now been confirmed as the cause of at least 5 recent cases in Orleans County and 2 cases in Caledonia County. The latest data released Wednesday afternoon also shows the Delta variant has been confirmed in 8 Vermont counties (Chittenden 23, Washington 8, Windham 7, Orleans 5, Caledonia 2, Addison, Orange and Rutland each 1).

The report that is updated weekly last showed only 7 total confirmed Delta variant cases with 6 in Chittenden and 1 in Addison.

The prevalence of Delta could also be higher since the Health Department only has the capacity to conduct the genomic sequencing necessary to identify variants on a portion of the state’s positive test results. There is also a 1- to 3-week delay between when a test comes up positive until the sequencing results are available. Vermont officials have said previously the Delta variant could have been more widespread than known because of the limited follow-up testing to identify the strain.

Recent developments about health experts’ understanding of the Delta variant and confirmation that it is now in the region, though, have some concerned.

Dr. Michael Rousse, chief medical officer at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, says late breaking news about the Delta variant from the CDC suggests Northeast Kingdom residents should remain cautious about COVID-19, keep their masks handy, and get vaccinated if not already.

“I would come down on the side of cautious,” said Rousse. “What I’m reading today is our concept of herd immunity is changing when it comes to COVID.”

Rousse said even 84 percent of eligible Vermonters may not be enough when the latest data suggests a higher percentage of vaccinated people than previously thought can become a breakthrough infection and spread COVID to others.

“Our active cases are not too bad yet,” said Rousse. “I just think we have to be ready for this to change.”

Rousse suspects within a week or two, both nationally and even in Vermont, the virus landscape may look significantly different.

Rousse said Vermont hospitals have been discussing issuing a joint statement urging mandated vaccinations.

Rousse said Vermont certainly was in a good position several weeks ago when it crossed the 80 percent vaccinated level and we were only seeing single digits of new cases across the state, but the Delta variant could change all that.

In the last 14 days there has been 1 new case in Caledonia County, 6 new cases in Essex County, and 9 new cases in Orleans County.

Amy Kimball, RN and infection preventionist at North Country Hospital, said it is important to note that while breakthrough infections can occur, and that the Delta variant was now the dominant strain in the country and region, 97 percent of hospitalized COVID patients were un-vaccinated.

“We are not ‘out of the woods’ yet as a country, but we are very fortunate to have low infection rates and very few COVID hospitalizations in Vermont,” said Kimball. “The take away message remains — vaccines save lives, healthy habits can prevent sickness.”

NCH officials said anyone that has not yet been vaccinated and still has concerns about doing so should contact their health care provider.

“As long as there are people who are un-vaccinated, the risk of transmission remains in play,” said Wendy Franklin, NCH director of communications. “‘We need to continue to make smart choices – even if vaccinated, if you are in an inside and crowded situation, it doesn’t hurt to add that extra protection by wearing a mask.”

Covid Vaccine and Testing clinics are at North Country Hospital at the drive-up unit in the east employee parking lot: Monday, Thursday and Friday, noon to 4 p.m.; Tuesday, 2 to 6 p.m.; or Wednesday, by physician appointment.

Register online for testing through the state website: https://www.healthvermont.gov/covid-19/testing/where-get-tested or walk-ins Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are welcome.

There is no preregistration necessary for the NCH Covid vaccine clinic, which offers Moderna vaccine only for individuals 18 or older, first or second doses.

Vaccinations in the Newport area are also available at Walgreens, Kinney Drugs and Walmart.

In the St. Johnsbury area NVRH hosts a drive up vaccination clinic, as well in the parking lot near the Emergency Room entrance on Thursdays. Vaccines are also available at Walgreens and Kinney Drugs in St. Johnsbury.

A number of pop-up clinics can be found on the Health Department website and include upcoming farmers markets, fairs, concerts and other community locations and events across the NEK.

Ben Truman, public health information officer with the Vermont Health Department, said anyone who has or is concerned about symptoms should consider getting tested.

“We are especially encouraging testing for people who have traveled to or been in close contact with people who have been to areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission,” said Truman.

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