MONTPELIER — State officials struck an optimistic tone Tuesday as the most recent round of COVID-19 data in Vermont showed decreases in total cases, notably among younger age groups that had been driving recent increases.
“We do want to thank younger Vermonters for preventing the spread … and also request that they keep it up,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.
The news comes one day after the youngest age group in Vermont’s vaccine distribution strategy — those age 16 and older — became eligible to sign up for appointments. Vermonters ages 16 to 18 were allowed to begin signing up Saturday for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with the rest of the age band becoming eligible Monday.
Here are three key takeaways from Tuesday’s update on the state’s response to the pandemic:
1. Promising data
Pieciak revealed on Tuesday that state case data has been falling, with 797 new cases reported in the last week — that’s 252 fewer than the week before and 435 fewer than the week before that. He said 11 of Vermont’s counties saw rates drop this week, and the most recent regional data shows Maine is the only northeast state that saw in increase in cases in the last week.
“This is really the first clear sign we’ve had in weeks that the COVID situation is starting to improve in states surrounding Vermont as well,” Pieciak said.
Both forecasting models the state uses to predict COVID-19 cases are calling for a decrease in cases in the coming weeks. Between the decrease in cases and Vermont’s high vaccine uptake up to this point, Pieciak said the state is on track to meet the vaccination range necessary for the May 1 transition to the next stage of Vermont’s reopening plan, which would open more businesses to universal guidance and loosen gathering restrictions for unvaccinated individuals.
“Even without the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we anticipate we’ll still have the supply to meet these targets,” Pieciak said.
2. Youngest age group eligible for vaccination
As of Tuesday morning, roughly 47,000 Vermonters between ages 16 and 29 had registered for vaccination, according to Jenney Samuelson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services. She said this represents about 40% of that age group.
“One year ago we could not have predicted that we’d have a vaccine, or that it would be available to all who are eligible,” she said.
In response to questions over potential delays due to the wider vaccine eligibility, Samuelson said there is appointment availability in mid-May in all counties minus Grand Isle, where clinics will be added the next week or two.
Samuelson and Gov. Phil Scott suggested that people check with pharmacies or the Health Department website for earlier appointments, and cancel any previous appointments if they reschedule for an earlier date.
“Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find an appointment this week or next. We’re still adding appointments,” Scott said, noting that the state could further expand appointments if the pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is lifted.
To that end, Scott said the state’s vaccine allocation would remain level for the next week, with a slight increase in doses through the federal pharmacy program. Federal health officials are set to meet Friday to determine whether or not to lift the pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was put in place last week due to blood clotting issues reported in six patients across the country.
Levine said Pfizer earlier this month requested to expand use of the vaccine it manufactures along with BioNTech to those age 12 to 15. He said phase three clinical trials showed the vaccine was safe for use and almost 100% effective in that age group.
While the data has yet to be reviewed, Levine said that, if approved, the state’s timeline might allow for vaccination of Vermonters in that age group sometime in May or June. He said there are roughly 22,000 Vermonters in that age group.
3. Breakthrough cases
Levine noted that as of April 13, more than 75 million in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated, and nearly 6,000 of those patients reported “breakthrough cases,” or infections post-vaccination, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This puts the national breakthrough case rate at 0.007%.
Levine said there have been about 125 breakthrough cases in Vermont as of Tuesday. However, he noted that this is very rare and those who experience breakthrough cases tend to experience milder symptoms of COVID-19.
“As effective as they are, no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness,” he said. “... It’s important to note, that these are still rare events.”