Vermont is one of the most vaccinated states in the country and has served as a model for response to COVID-19 during the pandemic. But now the state is experiencing its worst COVID-19 wave to date, with several factors — including its own success — to blame, officials said.
In Vermont, nearly 72% of residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — more than any other state, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, it has the 12th highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the past week, state data released Tuesday shows.
Vermont has seen a “significant” increase in COVID-19 cases in the past week, State Treasury Commissioner Mike Pieciak said at a news conference Tuesday.
The seven-day average for COVID-19 cases rose 42% on Tuesday, according to state data. Vermont tests more than almost any other state, although testing has only increased by 9% over the same period. The statewide positivity rate also rose 30%, with the seven-day average positivity rate just under 4%. The number of new cases rose by nearly 700 in the past week, state officials said Tuesday.
“We just don’t have [previously] seen an increase in terms of that crude number of cases during the pandemic,” Pieciak said, noting that just over 2,100 cases had been reported this week in Vermont, one of the least populous states in the country.
The number of cases in Vermont residents who are not fully vaccinated is nearly four times higher than in fully vaccinated residents, according to state data. Essex County, the least vaccinated county in the state, reports the highest number of cases of all Vermont counties, with 1,022 cases per 100,000 people reported Nov. 2-8. In Grand Isle County, which has the highest vaccination coverage in the state, that number was 160.
Statewide, those driving the rise include people in their 20s, who are least vaccinated among adults in Vermont, as well as children ages 5 to 11, who are just eligible to get vaccinated, said Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont health commissioner, Tuesday. .
There is no “one simple answer” behind the wave, according to Levine. Although an important factor is the delta variant, experts said.
“In the United States and in Vermont, we’re seeing the impact of the highly contagious delta variant,” Dr. Jan Carney, associate dean of public health and health policy at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, told ABC News. “It’s really so contagious. It hits pretty much every unvaccinated person.”
The delta’s rise in Vermont reflects rising cases in the region, as the northern parts of the country largely spared in the summer now increase in colder weather. Vermont is one of 22 states, many with colder temperatures, that have seen a 10% or more increase in daily cases in the past two weeks, according to an ABC News analysis of CDC and Health and Human Services data. .
Vermont is also one of 14 states that have seen an increase of about 10% or more in hospitalizations in the past week, the ABC News analysis found. About two-thirds of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Vermont are unvaccinated, and those in intensive care are largely unvaccinated, state officials said this week. COVID-19 patients make up between 10-15% of ICU patients; if that number rises to about 25%, “the system could be compromised,” Levine said.
With regard to the recent increase in cases, Vermont may also be a “victim to our success,” Levine said Tuesday, pointing to a lack of natural COVID-19 immunity among unvaccinated residents “as we have the virus during the kept the whole pandemic at such a low level. Vermont has one of the lowest nationwide levels of people who have developed natural immunity to the virus, CDC data shows.
Likewise, declining immunity among residents who were vaccinated “efficiently and effectively” early on is also likely contributing to increasing cases, Levine said. According to state data, breakthrough cases among vaccinated residents are up 31% in the past week.
The COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. No vaccine is 100% effective, and the dwindling immunity among residents, especially those who may not have developed a robust immune response, could be tested by high community distribution, experts say.
“You still have pockets of unvaccinated people, even in a highly vaccinated state,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and contributor to ABC News. “Unvaccinated individuals are the primary host through which the virus will spread and continue to allow transmission in the community and ultimately create challenges for those who have been vaccinated.”
Changes in behavior, including more travel and indoor gatherings, and Halloween festivities have also contributed to the surge, state officials said. At Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Halloween celebrations were blamed for triggering an outbreak on campus, which caused school officials to briefly move classes online and suspend in-person social gatherings during Thanksgiving. After Halloween, 87 students tested positive for the virus, compared to just 11 between Aug. 27 and Oct. 22, according to school data.
“We were doing really well as a community to the point where there were countless Halloween parties where students were exposed and in close contact,” said Lorraine Sterritt, the university’s president, in a letter to students earlier this week.
Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases is not expected to decline in the next four weeks, state models show as hospital admissions increase. Vermont has one of the lowest hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the country “thanks to vaccines doing their job,” Governor Phil Scott told reporters on Tuesday. But ICU capacity is the “biggest concern” right now, as hospitals are currently “under stress from an increase in patient care for health conditions unrelated to COVID,” he said.
Health officials emphasize vaccination and urge residents to get booster shots and vaccinate newly eligible children. Nearly 50% of Vermonters age 65 and older have received a booster dose, while more than 30% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have made an appointment to get vaccinated or have already started the process, state officials said Tuesday. .
Reaching out to the remaining unvaccinated adults will also be critical, Carney said.
“If there are people who have not yet decided to get vaccinated, I strongly urge them to talk to whoever they are seeking for their health care and have a conversation,” she said. “Vaccinating as many people as possible who are eligible for the vaccine will help us — in the short and long term.”
Maintaining high testing levels will also help, Brownstein said. “Testing is such an important way for us to identify those who have been exposed and infected and limit transmission,” he said.
Scott said he will not be issuing a mask mandate again amid the surge in cases, saying he believes it would be an “abuse of power” but encouraged residents to “take a few extra precautions,” including wearing masks indoors in public and getting tested before gatherings.
“If we make smart decisions in the coming weeks and put extra effort to protect the vulnerable, we can help reduce hospitalizations,” Scott said. “But we all need to commit to these smart, practical choices, starting with vaccinating.”
“None of us want to take a step back,” he added.
Arielle Mitropoulos of ABC News contributed to this report.