MONTPELIER — State officials expressed concern about rising COVID-19 case numbers across the state and nation Friday.
“The bottom line is Vermont is no longer the one green state in a map of red COVID cases across the US,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
According to Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, the state’s seven-day case average is the highest it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic as more COVID-19 variants continue to proliferate across the region and country.
During the same press conference, Secretary of Education Dan French announced an update to the Agency of Education’s healthy schools guidance that include revised social distancing protocols and the opening of school buildings for summer programs.
Here are four key takeaways from Friday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the pandemic:
1. High case numbers
Pieciak noted that the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus is showing up in areas of the country that are also seeing a rise in cases, including the northeast. And more concerning, hospitalizations have also increased in nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The health commissioner confirmed the same has been true of Vermont, with hospitalizations increasing from the mid-20s last week to 35 on Friday. He also noted the state’s positivity rate of 2.2%, while low compared to other states, is higher than normal for Vermont.
Levine said the more contagious B.1.1.7 and B.1.4.9 variants have been detected in multiple counties, including Franklin and Chittenden.
“My optimism is for the future. The future is very near, but when it comes to the present, frankly I am very concerned,” Levine said.
While cases have been on the rise, deaths have actually declined as the most vulnerable demographic groups in the state have largely been vaccinated, Pieciak said. As of Friday, 213,700 Vermonters had received a vaccine dose, and cases among the oldest age groups were down 54% across March.
However, Vermonters between ages 20 and 29 saw cases rise 50% in March, and Vermonters in other age groups that weren’t yet eligible for vaccination also saw increases.
“We really need these age groups to do whatever they can to protect themselves, protect their families, and follow the public health guidance to the greatest degree they can,” Pieciak said.
Vermonters age 40 and older will be eligible for vaccination beginning Monday.
2. New school guidance
French announced Friday that Vermont schools would now follow distancing guidelines adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allow for 3-foot distancing. Until now, Vermont schools have operated with 3 feet of distancing at the elementary school level, but 6-foot distancing at higher grade levels.
French said Europe and other New England schools had been operating under the CDC guideline for some time, but said schools would have leeway to enact more stringent guidelines at the local level.
“By making this change in our guidance, I expect we’ll see more schools switch to in-person instruction in the coming weeks,” French said.
French said school buildings will also be open for normal use this summer, with standard public health guidance. He said 80% of Vermont educators have been vaccinated.
3. Spring sports guidance updated
According to guidance revised March 23 by the AOE, spring sports teams can begin practices Monday, with interscholastic competitions allowed to take place April 17. Teams and officials must follow social distancing, sanitation and masking guidelines.
Spectators must be limited so as not to exceed the event size limit of 150, according to the guidance. The state is encouraging people to bring athletes to off-site events individually to minimize the use of buses for transportation.
The full guidance can be found on the AOE and Vermont Principals’ Association websites.
4. Adult day centers to reopen group activities
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, announced that adult day centers would be allowed to reopen to group activities now that most older Vermonters are now vaccinated. Senior centers have been closed to group activities since November 2020.
“Social isolation has been a real problem during the pandemic for many Vermonters, especially older adults, putting them at higher risk of poor health and outcomes,” Smith said, noting that senior centers and adult day facilities serve roughly 15,000 Vermonters.
The Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living collaborated with the Health Department on the guidance, which was released March 30 and is available on the department website.