BRATTLEBORO — On the one-year anniversary of Vermont reporting its first two deaths from COVID-19, Gov. Phil Scott and state officials presented a new vaccination schedule that would have all Vermonters over the age of 16 to be fully vaccinated by July 1.
At a March 19 news briefing in Montpelier, Scott said the state is continuing with its “age band” strategy for vaccinations.
“Our age banding approach has allowed us to first protect those at greatest risk of hospitalization and death, which is our top priority,” Scott said, calling that approach “effective.”
“In fact, while we have one of the oldest populations in the country, we have among the highest percentage of people age 65 and older vaccinated. We continue to believe age banding is the most effective and fastest way to reach all Vermonters who want a vaccine.”
Starting Thursday, March 25, people in the 60-plus age group can make appointments for vaccines. Those age 50 and older can start signing up on Monday, March 29, while those 40 and older can sign up starting on Monday, April 5.
People age 30 and older can sign up on Monday, April 12, and those 16 and older can sign up on Monday, April 19.
Scott said that steady increases in the federal government's allocation of vaccines to Vermont have made it possible to expand the eligibility of more age groups sooner than planned.
While it takes an average of about two to three weeks to get an appointment for the initial vaccine dose after signing up, Scott said he is confident that all Vermonters age 16 and older can be fully vaccinated by July 1, if not sooner.
As of March 20, more than 31 percent of Vermont adults - about 171,000 - have now received at least one dose, according to Vermont Department of Health data, with 28.8 percent of Windham County residents vaccinated.
“Getting a vaccine is the single most important thing Vermonters can do to help move us forward and back to a sense of normalcy. I encourage all Vermonters to get a vaccine when they are eligible,” said Scott.
Appointments can be made by visiting healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine. Anyone who is unable to make their appointment online, or who needs to speak with someone in a language other than English, can call 855-722-7878. The call center is open Monday to Friday, 8:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Health Department reminds people that healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine is the fastest way to make an appointment, and state officials said enough slots are available at sites throughout Vermont for everyone who is eligible.
As when receiving other immunizations, most people will be asked to wait for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine to watch for complications. They will also be given information about side effects and how to report any adverse reactions.
After people get their first dose, clinic staff will help them make an appointment to receive their second dose. Two of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration require the two doses for full efficacy.
Reaching out to BIPOC community
After noticing a gap in vaccine accessibility to people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), and their households, the NAACP of Windham County partnered with the Department of Health to help provide COVID-19 vaccination sites.
“People of color and vulnerable populations are less likely to have internet, computers, cars, insurance, employment, [and] agency for healthy behaviors. All of these things factor in being able to get health services,” Wichie Artu, second vice president of Windham County's NAACP, said in a weekend interview with WPTZ-TV.
One such clinic was scheduled at the Brattleboro Area Middle School Multi-Purpose Room on March 24, with more than 100 people scheduled to be vaccinated, according to the Health Department.
That event quickly filled up, but the department says more clinics will be scheduled in Brattleboro in the coming weeks.
Over the past month, the Health Department says it has been holding vaccine clinics for eligible Vermonters and members of their household who are among the groups at higher risk for COVID-19 due to language barriers, such as English language learners.
According to Health Department data, BIPOC Vermonters are more likely to get COVID-19 compared to white, non-Hispanic Vermonters - often related to issues of higher exposures to the coronavirus due to types of employment and transportation issues. They have significantly higher hospitalization rates and higher rates of most chronic diseases.
“We can and must do better, not only in engagement, the building of trust, and reducing vaccine hesitancy, but in realizing better health outcomes,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine earlier this month.
Words of caution
At the March 19 briefing, Levine cautioned Vermonters that with new, more highly transmissable strains of the virus being identified in the state, prevention and testing must remain a priority.
The previous day, the Health Department confirmed that genomic sequencing of COVID-19 specimens identified two of the variants of concern circulating in the United States have made their way to Vermont.
Earlier this month, the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom was identified. The department said recent lab results now show the B.1.429 strain, first identified in California, is also in Vermont.
The detections were found in samples from Chittenden and Franklin counties, with one sample's county of origin pending. The B.1.1.7 variant has now been found in eight specimens, and the B.1.429 variant was detected in three specimens.
The Health Department says it has sent 98 select samples, taken from people who had already tested positive for COVID-19, to the Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory's Molecular Diagnostics and Virology program for genetic sequencing.
The department also sent 60 samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Medical studies are ongoing but show the current vaccines are effective against these variants, Levine said, adding that the state's plan for vaccination is moving quickly and well.
But he cautioned that, with parts of the state showing a plateau or even an uptick in COVID-19 activity, it is still important that people double down on efforts to prevent spreading the virus.
“To really find our way out of this pandemic, along with registering for vaccination as soon as your age band opens, we must all continue to follow the very simple, but critically important, guidance of masks, distancing, and cautious travel,” he said.
“This is the only way to stay ahead in the race,” Levine added. “Through prevention, testing, and vaccination, we can achieve a level of community immunity that will bring us out of this pandemic.”
“We can cross the 'public health finish line' sooner, together,” he said.