MONTPELIER — Vermont health officials say they cannot fully explain why there has been a steady increase in the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 being reported in Bennington and Rutland counties.
As of Tuesday, Bennington County still has the highest coronavirus infection rate in the state, at 345.2 cases per 10,000 residents since the beginning of the pandemic.
To respond to the increase in cases in Bennington and Rutland counties, the state is offering additional COVID-19 testing in the area.
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, testing will be available at the Park House at the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park in Manchester. The Vermont National Guard is coming to town to offer the free tests.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, tests will be conducted at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s Northshire Medical Campus in Manchester.
“We’re very grateful to the town of Manchester and their work to stand up these sites,” Levine said.
Stratton will see a daily testing site from either 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. through at least Feb. 20 at 78 Founders Hill Road.
Daily testing also will be available in Bennington at SVMC and a clinic at 120 McKinley St. and testing is available at Rutland Regional Medical Center.
Vermont was the only jurisdiction among New England states, New York and the province of Quebec to see more cases between Feb. 2 and Monday than in the previous week, statistics released by state officials showed.
A projection shows that if the trend continues in another month, Vermont will have the highest per capita rate of active COVID-19 infections in the region.
“The steady pattern of cases we are seeing in the state is at odds with the declining cases across the region,” Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Tuesday during the twice-weekly virus briefing by top state officials.
Between Jan. 13 and Feb. 7, the number of new cases in Bennington and Rutland counties increased by about 75 percent, although there has been a slight decrease in the last week. For Vermont’s other 12 counties, the number of new confirmed cases decreased by nearly 40 percent over the same period.
Levine said they are seeing what he termed modest outbreaks in Bennington County, but they could not explain the increase in numbers they are seeing.
Some of the cases in Bennington County could be due to people from New York who work in Vermont or get health care in the state. A percentage could be due to people visiting Vermont ski resorts while others cases could be transmission in workplaces or at schools.
“The predominant cause of the increase in cases is at this time community transmission,” Levine said, noting the same could be applied to Rutland County, located north of Bennington County.
But officials say the declining regional numbers do bode well for Vermont.
And there was more good news in the statistics released Tuesday by top Vermont officials during the twice-weekly virus briefing.
The number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in long-term care facilities have declined dramatically since their December peak.
State officials expressed some disappointment Tuesday after hearing some instances of COVID-19 vaccines going to those who didn’t yet qualify.
“This is unfortunate because we have sent out three notifications to health care providers talking about who was eligible in group 1A that were specific, especially regarding health care workers,” Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said at the news conference. “In addition, we heard about situations where there was an attempt to circumvent the guidance and we intervened.”
No criminal activity was alleged and no providers were named. Smith reported hearing about attempts for non-patient-facing health care workers to receive the vaccines before the state stepped in.
“When we see it, we intervene because it’s not right and we want to make sure we are looking at these in general,” he said.
Smith said he’s still highly confident that most health care providers have complied with the guidance.
“We’re hoping this will be less of a concern moving forward,” he said. “We have issued even more guidance for health care providers.”
Smith said attempts to circumvent the guidance were probably unintentional, “but at the same time, I got to recognize some people have gotten vaccines that shouldn’t have and that’s unfortunate.” He encouraged health care partners to follow the guidance and for employees to not take the vaccine if they don’t think they’re eligible.
Gov. Phil Scott said the state didn’t have as much control in the first phase, as opposed to now where residents 75 and older are eligible for vaccinations.
“We probably should have been a little more clear but it was moving quickly,” he said. “I think this is a benefit of the age banding. It’s fairly clear: You’re either in that age group or not. There’s no way to be subjective about it.”
As of Tuesday, 65,100 eligible Vermonters have been vaccinated against COVID-19, about 32 percent of the eligible 75-and-up population. And about 33,400 Vermonters who are 75 or older have registered for their first dose.
Walgreens is set to receive vaccines directly from the federal government above and beyond the state’s allocation, Smith said. The stores are anticipated to get about 1,000 to 2,000 doses a week starting at the end of this week.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, pointed to Israel as a sign of early hope. He said the country has 80 percent of its citizens who are 60 and older fully vaccinated and it’s seeing instances of severe illness and deaths related to COVID-19 starting to decline.
The number of cases in the United States dropped by about 55 percent in the last four weeks. Pieciak said cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the country are projected to decrease through the month of February.
Levine estimated that two vaccination clinics designed specifically for immigrants and new Americans resulted in 100 Vermonters being vaccinated last week.
“We understand that language barriers and other factors faced by immigrants and other new American communities have led to outbreaks, disproportionate outcomes and a markedly greater risk of COVID-19,” he said, adding that the state wants to prioritize Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities and English language learning populations, which is aligned with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state’s implementation advisory committee.
Having just spoken with other governors and White House officials, Scott said an extra 500,000 doses will be distributed soon — meaning about 500 more for Vermont. He said Pfizer told the federal government that the company will add 50 million doses to what it originally thought it would have by the end of March. He called the increase “significant.”