Mark Levine

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine speaks during Tuesday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MONTPELIER — State officials announced several changes to public health guidance Tuesday in a bid to increase COVID-19 vaccine eligibility and edge Vermonters that much closer to normality.

During Tuesday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the pandemic, it was announced that eligibility would be expanded to parents of children with high-risk conditions and Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in Vermont. In addition, public health guidance for hospitals was updated to allow greater access for vaccinated Vermonters.

“Hospitals do have discretion to use more stringent measures and guidance,” said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

During the same press conference, Gov. Phil Scott also announced another uptick in the state’s vaccine allocation for the week. But the good news comes as cases in Vermont and across the country have risen due to the spread of COVID-19 variants, and officials warned the public not to get complacent because more of the population has been vaccinated.

“Wanting the pandemic to be over, and it actually being over, are not the same thing,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. “… If we can keep our prevention game strong, we can keep our hope for the future alive.”

Here are three key takeaways from Tuesday’s press conference:

1. Vaccine eligibility expanded

Beginning Thursday, BIPOC Vermonters age 16 and older and their family members can register to be vaccinated. Levine said there is an almost two-fold increase of risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 among the state’s BIPOC population.

The state had previously allowed family members of BIPOC Vermonters within the eligible age groups to be vaccinated. Levine said that despite this, vaccination of BIPOC Vermonters has lagged. While 33.4% of the state’s white population has received at least one vaccine dose, only 20.2% of the state’s BIPOC population has received a dose.

“It is unacceptable that this disparity remains,” Levine said.

Even sooner than that, on Wednesday, parents with children under age 16 with a high-risk condition that would otherwise make them eligible for vaccination will be able to register.

“We need to ensure these parents and caregivers remain healthy enough to care for the child,” Levine said.

The news comes one day after Vermonters age 50 and older became eligible. As of Tuesday, more than 21,000 Vermonters in that age group had registered for a vaccine, Smith said.

According to Smith, 202,300 Vermonters had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday, with 90% of those age 70 and older and 75% of those age 65 to 69 having been vaccinated.

Vaccination appointments can be made at 12 Hannaford locations across the state, and CVS is adding vaccine appointment locations in Essex, Rutland and Williston.

Vermonters age 40 and older will be eligible to register beginning on Monday, April 5.

2. Revised hospital guidance

Smith announced Tuesday that under updated guidance going into effect Wednesday, hospitals can allow vaccinated Vermonters to visit hospital patients. However, this only gives hospitals the option to allow vaccinated visitors — hospitals have leeway to use more stringent guidelines.

Smith said visitors will need to present evidence of vaccination, and will need to follow normal public health guidance such as wearing masks.

A second guidance change going into effect Thursday allows providers and facilities offering inpatient and outpatient procedures to screen patients for vaccination status.

3. Cases elevated regionally, nationwide

Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, reported Tuesday that cases and hospitalizations are rising in 30 states as the more contagious B.1.1.7 strain of COVID-19 becomes more prevalent.

“The variants seem to be pulling ahead,” Pieciak said, referencing the metaphor of a race between the spread of viral variants and vaccinations.

Pieciak said the weekly case total for the last week came within two cases of the state’s highest weekly increase, which took place the week of Jan. 5. However, case distribution is now very different, with cases among Vermonters age 60 and older decreasing 118% and cases among those 40 and younger increasing 34% between the two data sets.

“The trend toward younger cases is something we’ve seen throughout 2021,” Pieciak said.

Following a call with the White House and fellow governors, Scott said the state’s allocation is set to jump between 5,000 and 6,000 doses this week, but will remain level next week.

Pieciak noted that the state is now leading the nation in the percentage of residents age 65 and older who have started or completed vaccination.

“Given our current case rates, we estimate that 78 lives have been saved so far from the vaccine being available to us here in Vermont,” he said.

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