Vermont Seeing Largest COVID Surge of Pandemic, Despite 74 Percent of Residents Vaccinated

Although 74 percent of its population is fully vaccinated, the state of Vermont is experiencing its largest surge of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Throughout the past week, coronavirus infections have jumped 54 percent along with an 18 percent increase in hospitalizations. According to the Vermont Department of Health, six new deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 complications across the state. Ninety percent of those hospitalized in intensive care units in the state are unvaccinated. According to local news station NBC 5, unvaccinated people are 15 times more likely to be hospitalized due to a COVID-19 infection.

Republican Governor Phil Scott addressed the rise in cases during a press conference on Tuesday, urging those still not vaccinated to get their shots. "Obviously, it's not where we want to be," he said.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said, "There's no question this is concerning. It's why preventing those cases is still so important for all of us."

Along with encouraging the unvaccinated to get the shots, health and government officials are urging all vaccinated adults in the state to receive their booster shot.

"That will certainly help keep the most vulnerable out of the hospital, which is critical with the hospital levels where they are at the moment," said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

Tuesday also marked an important development in COVID-19 testing in Vermont. An emergency rule was recently enacted to allow commercial health insurers to pay for at-home rapid tests, helping around 140,000 citizens in the state. Scott praised the new bill and hopes that it will help ease testing woes while encouraging people to continue to stay vigilant against the virus.

"We think this is an important step to take right now during the holiday season to encourage people to use these tests before and after holiday gatherings," Scott said.

Meanwhile, many vaccinated people in the state are going back to get their booster shot. Berlin resident Mike Labounty told the Associated Press that he got his booster in order to ensure he and his family do not get sick.

"I have friends that are in their 20s that are getting sick and friends that are 60 that are getting sick," he said. "The thing you see on Facebook and stuff like that is, 'I just want this to be over. I'm very sick,' so I'm just trying to avoid that."

Vermont Booster
Even as the U.S. reaches a COVID-19 milestone of roughly 200 million fully vaccinated people, infections and hospitalizations are spiking, including in highly vaccinated pockets of the country like New England. Above, a man leaves a COVID-19 vaccination clinic after getting a shot on December 7, 2021, in Berlin, Vermont. AP Photo/ Lisa Rathke

Vermont is far from the only state recording surges of COVID-19 infections. The number of Americans fully vaccinated reached 200 million Wednesday amid a dispiriting holiday-season spike in cases and hospitalizations that has hit even New England, one of the most highly inoculated corners of the country.

New cases in the U.S. climbed from an average of nearly 95,000 a day on November 22 to almost 119,000 a day this week, and hospitalizations are up 25 percent from a month ago. The increases are due almost entirely to the Delta variant, though the Omicron mutation has been detected in about 20 states and is sure to spread even more.

Deaths are running close to 1,600 a day on average, back up to where they were in October. And the overall U.S. death toll less than two years into the crisis could hit another heartbreaking milestone, 800,000, in a matter of days.

The situation is not as dire as last year's holiday-season surge, before the public had access to COVID-19 vaccines, but the 60 percent of the U.S. population that is fully vaccinated has not been enough to prevent hot spots.

The cold weather, Thanksgiving gatherings and a big rebound in holiday travel are all believed to be playing a role, along with public weariness with pandemic restrictions.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, likened the virus to a wildfire.

"You can clear a forest of the shrubbery. But if you leave some shrubs and trees standing, the fire will find them," Gostin said. "The virus will find you. It is searching for hosts that are not immune. The fact that you live in New England or New York doesn't insulate you."

Demand for the vaccine—with recent approval of boosters for all adults and shots for elementary school children—has been high amid the surge and the emergence of the Omicron variant, whose dangers are still not fully understood. On Wednesday, Pfizer said that the initial two shots of its vaccine appear significantly less effective against Omicron but that a booster dose may offer important protection.

Nearly 48 million people have received a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. White House officials noted the U.S. administered 12.5 million shots last week, the highest weekly total since May.

"And that's critical progress as we head into the winter and confront the new Omicron variant," White House coronavirus adviser Jeffrey Zients said.

At the same time, some states, notably in highly vaccinated New England, but also in the Midwest, are grappling with some of the worst surges since the start of the pandemic. Hospitals are filling up and reacting by canceling non-urgent surgeries or taking other crisis measures, while states are strongly promoting boosters.

More than 400 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 in New Hampshire at the start of the week, breaking the record set last winter.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu directed hospitals to set up COVID-19 "surge centers" using space normally reserved for such things as outpatient care.

"Every day for the next several weeks, we're likely to see a new high in COVID hospitalizations in New Hampshire," said Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association. "With over 1,000 new cases a day, that number's not going to do anything but continue to go up."

Maine likewise is struggling with record-breaking COVID-19 hospitalizations. Governor Janet Mills on Wednesday activated as many as 75 members of the National Guard to help out.

"The vast majority of patients in our hospitals are unvaccinated. That's especially true of critical care patients," said Andy Mueller, CEO of MaineHealth, the state's biggest health network. "It requires a tremendous amount of our resources to provide care."

Rhode Island's largest hospital system, Lifespan, said staffing shortages are at never-before-seen crisis levels, while Kent Hospital said it is near capacity and is considering delaying non-urgent procedures.

Dr. Paari Gopalakrishnan, Kent's interim president and chief operating officer, said the spike is probably due to "people letting their guards down" during the holidays, and flu season could complicate things further.

New Hampshire plans to hold a "booster blitz" on Saturday at 15 locations. Most appointments were booked.

Elsewhere around the country, Indiana has seen COVID-19 hospital admissions double in the last month and is approaching levels not seen since this time a year ago, before vaccines were widely available.

The number of people in intensive care in Minnesota has reached the highest level during the pandemic, with 98 percent of ICU beds occupied. Teams of military medics have been sent into Michigan and New Mexico.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Vermont Vaccination
Even as the U.S. reaches a COVID-19 milestone of roughly 200 million fully vaccinated people, infections and hospitalizations are spiking, including in highly vaccinated pockets of the country like New England. Above, Howie McCausland (left) of the Mad River Valley Ambulance Service prepares to vaccinate Caleb Carrien, 19, of Barre, Vermont, at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic on June 17, 2021, in Waterbury, Vermont. AP Photo/Wilson Ring