State officials announced expanded vaccination efforts in the region while also alerting people that the more transmissible and potentially deadly variant is in the Northeast Kingdom.
The Vermont Health Department confirmed Friday that the B.1.1.7 “UK” variant of the coronavirus has been identified in at least 1 case in Caledonia County. Caledonia County is one of 5 counties in the state to have the variant confirmed by genomic sequencing of test samples.
Caledonia County, along with Orleans County has seen a dramatic rise in cases in recent weeks. Since early March the 7-day average of new cases in the Northeast Kingdom has increased from 15 new cases per day to now over 30 new cases per day. The region has now recorded 1,892 cases with 751 in Caledonia County, 927 in Orleans County and 214 in Essex County.
“A big part of why the virus is spreading more easily is certainly due to the variants,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
Even though the variant has been reported in only 5 counties it is still likely more widespread due to the limited capacity to perform genomic sequencing.
The other counties with confirmed variant cases include 12 in Chittenden, 3 in Franklin, 2 in Rutland, and 1 in Windham.
“Even if your community is not among those I just named you should still assume it’s probably circulating in your area as well,” Levine warned all Vermont residents during Friday’s media briefing by state officials.
The Health Department has added a report about the variants on its data dashboard which will be updated twice a week and includes three counties with the B.1.429 variant.
Dr. Levine struck a more concerned tone during his prepared remarks at the briefing, noting the recent rise in cases and now a slight increase in hospitalizations.
“I do need to make clear that my optimism is for the future,” said Levine. “The future is very near but when it comes to the present frankly I am very concerned. Vermont is still seeing high numbers of daily cases, now higher numbers of people in the hospital.”
Levine noted the test positivity rate is higher than the state is used to and there is more community transmission.
“Cases appear in workplaces, schools, across all sectors of society with all kinds of challenging ripple effects within those communities,” said Levine. “The bottom line is Vermont is no longer the one green state in a map of red COVID cases across the US. We are just like all the other states in our region. A region that is currently doing worse than some other parts of the rest of the country.”
Levine urged Vermonters to hold on a little longer and abide by mask-wearing, distancing and social gathering restrictions, noting it is only a matter of weeks before officials anticipate the impact of vaccinations to begin turning the tide in cases.
“We’ve been at it for over a year, we just need to hand tough for a few more weeks,” said Levine.
While Levine advocated for greater adherence to mitigation efforts, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith unveiled new efforts to bring vaccinations to Essex County, which has the lowest vaccination rates in all of Vermont in every age band.
“To all our community members in Essex County, we are making significant efforts to improve vaccination rates and we need participation from everyone in that county,” said Levine. “With the assistance of CALEX and Newport EMS we are deploying mobile clinics to 9 locations in Essex County on April 10 and 11. Please spread the word and make an appointment to get vaccinated.”
The clinics, which include one in Caledonia County, will be held by CALEX in 2 hours blocks on April 10 at Concord School 8-10 a.m., Lunenburg Common 11-1, and Maidstone Town Office 2-4, and on April 11 at East Haven Community Building 8-10, Newark Street School 11-1; and by Newport EMS on April 11 at Island Pond Fire Station 8-10 a.m., Norton Municipal Building 11-1, Bloomfield Silvio Conte Forest parking lot 2-4, and Canaan High School 5-7.
There are about 300 Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccinations allocated for the effort and there will be limited walk-in availability but residents are urged to pre-register starting today either on the Health Department website or by calling the Health Department’s call center 800-464-4343. The clinics will be open to all Vermonters 40 and above plus the various select groups that are eligible to receive the vaccine.
Smith said AHS was also in discussion with working with a health care provider in Colebrook to potentially make the vaccine available to Essex County residents in the future.
Superintendents from across the region announced that busing would resume next week at most of the area’s schools. Mark Tucker of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union and Brian Ricca of St. Johnsbury School said Butler’s Bus Co. would resume service at their schools.
Jen Botzojorns of Kingdom East said bus service would resume at Concord, Lunenburg, Lyndon, Miller’s Run and Sutton. Burke and Newark will have minor interruptions.
“The Vermont Department of Health has completed their outbreak investigation and are satisfied that the bus company understands protocols related to COVID-19. We have assurances from the company owner that there are no cases where employees who should not be working are on the job,” wrote Botzojorns in a letter to the school communities.