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Rescue Inc. Chief Drew Hazelton was one of the first in the area to get the COVID-19 vaccine in December.

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Making progress

Health Department says that the 49,000 Vermonters older than 75 should expect to see COVID-19 vaccines by the end of January or the beginning of February

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont officials are hopeful that more of the state’s population will be getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

According to the Vermont Department of Health’s data dashboard at healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/covid-19-vaccine-dashboard, about 26,600 Vermonters had received either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 12, with 1,430 doses administered in Windham County as of Jan. 7.

In a Jan. 8 news briefing in Montpelier, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Vermont is the second fastest state in the nation for vaccinating its residents and fourth best in the number of doses administered per 100 residents.

“But we need to accelerate the pace,” he said.

Gov. Phil Scott said in his inaugural address on Jan. 7 that he expected that at the current rate of vaccination, 120,000 Vermonters could be immunized by the end of this winter.

“It’s our hope that sometime this summer — possibly earlier — we’ll reach the point where life will begin to feel normal again,” Scott said. “But a lot depends on how many doses of vaccine the federal government makes available and how many Vermonters choose to get vaccinated.”

Smith said that the state is closing in on finishing immunizations in the first group to get the vaccine — health workers, first responders, and residents of long-term-care facilities.

He said that vaccinating senior citizens, particularly those in long-term care, remains a priority. Of the 156 deaths due to COVID-19 in Vermont as of Jan. 8, 146 were over the age of 65.

According to the current timetable by the Health Department, those over the age of 75 — there are 49,000 Vermonters in that group — should expect to see vaccines by the end of January or the beginning of February.

They would befollowed by the 70-plus, and 65-plus age groups. Younger people with high-risk medical conditions such as heart disease, emphysema, COPD, and cancer, will get their shots concurrently with the older age groups. So will people who have received an organ donation, regardless of age.

The goal, Smith said, is to have everyone in the categories vaccinated by the end of May.

“What we are trying to do is to design a system that is easily implemented, easily understood, and prioritizes our fundamental goal: protecting lives,” Smith said.

Dealing with delays

Smith says the state is working on a mass distribution plan for the vaccine at multiple locations, with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers, hospitals, National Guard members, and health department officials receiving training on to give the vaccinations.

Vermont has received nearly 50,000 doses so far, but Smith cautioned that the state was shorted in previous deliveries and said he was “disappointed” with the federal response thus far.

This has led some delays in getting out the vaccine.

Dr. Kathleen McGraw, chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said in a news release that BMH has had to reschedule clinics due to changing vaccine allocations, creating some frustration and worry on the part of community-based providers.

Despite the delays, through close coordination with local providers, emergency medicine personnel, and home health and hospice staff, McGraw says BMH will likely complete the first round of vaccinations by next week.

“This has truly been a team effort,” she said. “We would not be where we are today without the leadership of the state, as well as the clinical and non-clinical staff who stood up the vaccine clinics in record time.”

Andrea Seaton, senior director for foundation and community relations at Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital in Townshend, wrote The Commons that they have been “administering the first and second doses to health care workers who live and work within their service area.”

Seaton wrote that the hospital leadership does not yet know when they will be distributing vaccine to elderly and high-risk Vermonters, or which vaccine — Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — will be given.

“A lot depends upon the manufacturers’ ability to keep their production on pace with demand,” she wrote. “We have been monitoring this situation closely with the Vermont Department of Health, the CDC, and other Vermont hospitals, and will continue to do so.”

Details for when and where those vaccines will be administered will be made available in the weeks to come, Seaton said.

She urged people to not call their primary care providers with questions about when they will get the vaccine because “there is no waiting list to worry about.”

Seaton suggested keeping an eye on Grace Cottage’s COVID-19 portal at gracecottage.org/coronavirus.

Still learning, still watching

Despite the shortages of the vaccines, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said he does not support the idea of giving only one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so that more people will be vaccinated. He said that he is concerned that that protocol won’t be as effective as getting two doses.

As for the more contagious COVID-19 mutation known as B117, Levine said it has not yet been reported in Vermont but that it is likely to arrive, especially since a case was recently reported in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., just 30 miles from the state border.

He said that while the mutation spreads more quickly, it doesn’t appear to be more deadly. Levine said some positive COVID-19 tests from Vermont are being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further testing for the new strain.

Levine said initial reporting by Pfizer indicates that the company’s vaccine is effective against B117, but more testing needs to be done.

As for allergic reactions to the vaccine, Levine said that the CDC found that 21 people out of the first 2 million who were vaccinated had allergic reactions and that all had a previous history of reactions to vaccines.

Health researchers are still trying to determine when immunity develops and how long it might last after the vaccines are provided, Levine said.

He said that uncertainty makes it critical for everyone, whether they have had the vaccine, to continue to follow public health protocols.

“We know with this virus we’re never ‘safe’ and we’re certainly not immune to the havoc COVID-19 is causing in the rest of the country,” Levine said.

“The fact is, we know how this virus works — and what works against it,” he noted. “And that is what you already know: wearing a mask, keeping at least a 6-foot distance, avoiding travel and gatherings, and staying home when you’re sick.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #595 (Wednesday, January 13, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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