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Answering your questions about COVID-19 in Vermont this fall

A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Lynne Sladky
Many of you had questions about the status of COVID-19 in Vermont this fall — and so did we.

This summer has shown some of the lowest COVID-19 numbers nationwide since the start of the pandemic. However, recently there has been a small increase in cases seen nationwide and in Vermont, and a new variant — EG.5, which is a member of the omicron family.

There’s also a new booster coming this fall.

So it seems COVID-19 is starting to be on people’s minds again. Many of you had questions — and so did we.

We talked to state experts to help answer some of these new and recurring questions to help you take stock of the current state of COVID-19, fall vaccines and testing.

A green and purple graphic with a radio tower and the words "Community Inspired"
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
This story was inspired by members of our audience who reached out to inform our reporting. Thank you to everyone who shared questions for being a part of our journalism. If you have an idea, tip or question for a reporter, you can reach our newsroom here.

What’s causing the current uptick in COVID-19 cases?

These new COVID-19 cases are starting to be comprised of a new variant, EG.5, which Dr. Tim Plante — a general internist, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine — said is on its way to being the dominant strain in the U.S. The variant is related to others in the omicron family.

"It's thought to evade antibodies from prior vaccines and prior infections," Plante said recently onVermont Edition, which is leading to more cases after a quiet stretch.

So far, Eris doesn’t seem to be more worrisome than other omicron subvariants, as far as transmission and the severity of infections.

And new variants are expected — it’s just the nature of COVID-19 and a lot of other diseases, and they aren’t necessarily a cause for concern according to John Davy, a Vermont Department of Health epidemiologist.

Davy also said the increased awareness right now may be contributing to more positive tests. With COVID-19 being in the news more now than it has been all summer, people may be looking out for symptoms and testing more. So while Davy said they are seeing more positive tests, he said it is most likely reflective of a real increase as well as driven by more awareness.

What are the masking requirements in Vermont?

All statewide masking requirements were lifted last year.

But you can still wear a mask.

“It's never going to harm, from a disease prevention perspective, to do that,” Davy said.

Masks are still effective. So if wearing a mask makes you feel safe with newer COVID-19 cases or the upcoming flu and RSV season, start (or keep) wearing masks indoors and in largely-attended areas.

As for the potential of a mask mandate coming back? Some sectors of communities — like hospitals or schools — may consider implementing their own requirements, but Davy said besides in an instance of a public health emergency, the health department wouldn’t enact one.

“With what we see now, you know, we don't recommend it, but we certainly welcome it, support it, encourage it for folks who think it's important for them,” Davy said. “If someone has a particular crucial special event coming up, you know, being a little more proactive towards using a mask might make sense for them.”

Davy said we aren’t currently at a level where required masking indoors would be required.

A photograph of a windowsill with plants and a NIOSH-approved N95 mask.
Jennifer Swanson/NPR
NIOSH-approved N95 masks are recommended to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

Where can I track COVID-19 cases in Vermont?

The Vermont Department of Health is currently tracking COVID-19 cases a few different ways, but mainly through hospitalization numbers.

These numbers are tracked and updated weekly on their website. If you want the most up-to-date numbers, Davy said the numbers are updated on Wednesdays.

You can also find national COVID-19 data through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How are these numbers reported?

Hospitalization numbers are the main way COVID-19 is tracked in the state. Those numbers are reported weekly and updated on Wednesdays online.

The state also uses some wastewater testing, which has been successfully used to track COVID-19 in communities and statewide. Wastewater testing can help show a larger trend, even in testing small portions of the state. More on wastewater testing later.

The health department also tracks outbreaks from places like schools and nursing homes that are required to report them. The department also tracks voluntary self-reported cases, which aren’t a reliable way to determine statewide COVID-19 spread or risk. However, Davy said they welcome any self-reported data they get.

Is Vermont still testing wastewater?

During the pandemic, wastewater testing was used as a population-based metric to watch COVID-19 levels in a community without having to rely on self-reporting or individual testing.

Only a handful of places in Vermont test wastewater, and those places have changed throughout the course of the pandemic. But wastewater testing is still valuable data when determining community levels and overall COVID-19 trends.

Plante told Vermont Edition listeners that even a small handful of wastewater test sites can speak pretty accurately to the state of COVID-19 in communities across the state, so there isn’t really a need to increase how much wastewater testing is done in Vermont, especially not when COVID-19 starts to trend up.

"As an epidemiologist, we can infer patterns in communities using data collected ... across a very large swath of the population," Plante said.

Where can I find a PCR test in the state?

Davy said the best way to find a PCR test is to get in touch with your primary care physician, if possible.

However, some urgent care facilities or pharmacies may be able to get you a PCR test. Other testing options, like the at-home antigen tests, are another option.

Are COVID-19 tests still free?

There are some ways to access COVID-19 testing for free or low-cost in Vermont communities. Davy said the Vermont Department of Health has a municipal distribution program to provide more accessible testing.

Davy said you may want to check at your local library, town offices or food pantries.

As far as accessing PCR tests, Davy said it’s best to consult with a provider if possible.

Some pharmacies are still offering PCR tests by appointment in the area — like Walgreens — but the cost may not be covered anymore depending on insurance. You may want to call your local pharmacy about their testing options and costs. You can also contact your insurance provider to see if COVID-19 test costs are still covered.

You can still buy antigen self tests, like BinaxNOW, at many drug stores or online. But those tests can cost around $20, which isn’t a viable option for everyone.

Gloved hands grasp blue boxes of BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests
David Dermer
A health worker grabs at-home COVID-19 test kits to be handed out in Youngstown, Ohio.

Can I use expired COVID-19 at-home rapid tests?

If you still have COVID-19 tests lying around from a year ago, and don’t want to buy new ones if you can help it, Plante said those expired tests may still be an option.

When at-home tests, like BinaxNOW, became available, they had short shelf-lives because they were new. But now that more information is available, some of those expiration dates may have been extended.

The FDA has information on the extended expiration dates listed here.

Plante said that if a test is really, really old, it could give you a wrong answer, "but it won't give you a false positive." It's much more likely you could get a false negative result.

"If that (old test) tells you you have COVID, you probably have COVID," Plante said.

Is there a new booster available?

The newest vaccine is currently expected to be available in September, with an updated formula to provide better protection against these new variants.

This is the third COVID-19 vaccine made. The “old” booster formula, the bivalent booster from 2022, is still out there ahead of the new one becoming available, which is why this whole booster thing might be confusing.

If you hear about booster appointments available in August and early September, it may be for the original bivalent booster from 2022 — which is still helping against COVID-19, but it probably won’t provide as much protection this year as the new one on its way, so if you can wait, Plante said that could be more beneficial.

Also in the news: a nasal COVID-19 vaccine is in the works, with promising results, but it isn’t available yet.

A registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the Staten Island borough of New York, April 8, 2021.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
A registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the Staten Island borough of New York, April 8, 2021.

Should I get the new booster, and if so, when?

Davy said the new booster is a monovalent booster and doesn’t have any prerequisites to complete before getting it. So, if you haven’t had a vaccine yet, or haven’t had any of the previous boosters, you can still get the updated formula.

Last year’s vaccine was bivalent, meaning it had some of the original vaccine and some of the circulating variant at the time (which Plante explained was BA4/5, which isn’t really circulating anymore).

"If you were to get it, you probably would ... get a little bit of protection from it,” Plante said. “But I think the better bang for your buck is waiting another six weeks, wash your hands, wear a mask, you know, be careful, and get the new vaccine that's coming out — the third vaccine that's ever been made — in six weeks, which targets the currently circulating virus. That's the one we want to be getting into arms."

While this new vaccine wasn't made specifically with the currently-dominant "Eris" variant, it is made with other omicron descendants — like Eris is — and it will provide more protection than the old boosters, although Plante and Davy both said you’d still have reasonable protection from last year’s vaccine.

So, if you've been thinking about getting a booster, Plante said it may be beneficial to wait and get the one that is predicted to provide more protection against this current spike.

If you've recently had COVID-19, the general consensus is that it gives you some sort of protection, as the data shows it's unlikely to be reinfected within three months. So if you've recently had — or currently have — COVID-19, you may not need the booster right away in September.

"We know that when people get COVID, your immune system gets trained to fight off COVID, which is what a vaccine does," Plante said.

Where can I find the new booster? Is it free?

Since there isn’t a date set on the booster’s release, we can’t provide a list of spots you can find it. But Davy said it’s safe to assume you can get it where you’ve been getting all your other COVID-19 vaccines.

Do I need to have all of the previous COVID-19 vaccines before getting the new one?

No. As explained above, this vaccine is a monovalent design made up of different COVID-19 variants. Davy said there are no prerequisites for this new version.

How do I politely set firm boundaries with friends/family/coworkers regarding COVID-19 safety as cases increase again?

This can be hard to do, especially when COVID-19 is in a state where people have their own systems in place for their personal protection or risk factors.

But Davy said there are tools we’ve been using throughout the pandemic to help with setting boundaries, like outdoor gatherings or choosing to mask yourself. Even without nationwide or statewide mandates, these tools are still available to you.

How can I improve ventilation in my home or work space to limit risk?

In May, the CDC set a ventilation targetin buildings because of its ability to limit indoor spread of COVID-19. The CDC is now recommending five air changes an hour in shared, indoor spaces. Filtering air through HVAC systems with clean filters had also been a part of the ventilation recommendations for COVID-19.

Davy said it’s hard to quantify this data, as it’s dependent on some variables. But if you’re wanting to utilize ventilation in your COVID-19 prevention or minimization, there are some easy options.

“We can very confidently say that socializing outside is significantly better, just simply from a disease perspective here with COVID,” Davy said. “In terms of ventilating a room, I mean, it's certainly beneficial, but in terms of how much, I don't really want to speculate on.”

However, if you’re looking to increase ventilation and filtration for your own spaces, the CDC has provided tips on improving home ventilation by using air filters, opening windows when possible and limiting the amount of visitors you have. Portable air cleaners could also be an option.

A fleet of yellow school buses.
Nina Keck
A fleet of yellow school buses in Rutland in March 2020.

Are COVID-19 vaccines required in schools in Vermont?

No, COVID-19 vaccines are not on the list of vaccines required by the health department for the 2023-2024 school year.

Are schools getting any guidance on COVID-19 from the Vermont Agency of Education this school year?

Interim Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey told Vermont Edition that no new COVID-19 guidance is being given at this time. Bouchey said previous years navigating COVID-19 have helped prepare schools to deal with future outbreaks, and that the Vermont Agency of Education will be monitoring COVID-19 activity.

What are Vermont colleges doing about COVID-19 this semester?

Many colleges have moved away from COVID-19 masking and vaccination requirements. UVM, Bennington College, Middlebury College and Community College of Vermont have all stopped requiring proof of vaccination and masking on campus. However, most colleges still encourage students to follow CDC guidelines, and many colleges and universities have stated that plans may change as needed.

This is my third/fourth/fifth time having COVID-19. How are the repetitive infections impacting me?

This is a difficult question to answer for anyone working with COVID-19, because there are a lot of variables involved.

With repeated infections, some people may fare better each time because their bodies recognize the infection, or they could fare worse because dealing with COVID-19 the first time could’ve weakened their immune systems. And some people are significantly higher-risk than others, or have become higher-risk since their first infection.

However, Davy said the current data does not suggest an increased risk with each infection (as opposed to his example ofDengue Fever, which has repeatedly been shown to cause more dangerous infections with each reinfection).

Davy said if COVID-19 were to perform in that way, “we would have a pretty clear sense of that by now,” because COVID-19 has circulated so much over several years.

So it’s a case-by-case question. But overall, reinfection shouldn’t be cause for fear in terms of worsening effects. In fact, Davy said it’s probably expected.

“The way I'm thinking about it … I'm almost certainly going to get COVID again, a few times in my life. I want that number to be pretty low. And I want it to have a minimal impact on my life,” Davy said.

So, is it expected that everyone takes every possible precaution to avoid COVID-19 at all costs? No. But Davy said there are easy and helpful ways to reduce the spread and minimize its impact.

Staying up to date on vaccines, masking when risk is high, washing hands and preventing exposure if you do have COVID-19 are beneficial steps both for yourself and for your community by keeping the spread low.

“I think that's probably a good way for most people to think about it is reducing its impact in your life,” Davy said. “They can take dramatic steps to keep that very low, or they can take some simple steps to reduce it and minimize its impact.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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