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Reporter debrief: COVID case counts climb after dip last week. Infection rates highest among kids under 10

Phil Scott stands at podium speaking.
In the past week, COVID case counts have jumped to some of the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. About 2,000 Vermonters have contracted the disease in October so far.

Earlier this month, it looks like the delta surge might be subsiding in Vermont. But the past seven days have seen case counts rise to some of the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, and infection rates are most severe among young children who aren't yet eligible for the vaccine.

Those are some of the big takeaways from Tuesday's COVID media briefing from Gov. Phil Scott.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld who covered the briefing. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Last week, administration officials sounded pretty optimistic about Vermont's progress with the delta variant. This week, though, we saw cases spike again. Has the Scott administration been able to pinpoint the cause of these new infections?

Peter Hirschfeld: You know, Phil Scott was asked precisely that question today, and he said, “You know, I just plain don't know. I wish I could tell you, but I can't.”

And these higher numbers are especially confusing given the trends that we're seeing nationally right now. The United States overall saw a 7% drop in COVID infections over the past seven days. Here in Vermont, they jumped by 26%.

One piece of information the Scott administration was able to provide today is that the virus appears to be transmitting primarily through small and medium sized social gatherings. Administration officials say they aren't seeing a ton of localized outbreaks. They say they're not seeing a lot of transmission at indoor retail establishments or other indoor settings like that. They say the data they're collecting points to social gatherings as the main culprit, and they're encouraging people to adopt appropriate mitigation measures accordingly, like masking indoors when you're hanging out with people outside your immediate household.

Well, today's presentation also included a breakdown of new COVID cases by age group. What did that analysis tell us about who's at the highest risk of contracting the delta variant right now?

Well, that analysis included a really unsettling data point, I imagine, for parents of young children, because infection rates right now are highest among children between the ages of zero and nine, which happens to be the same age group that's not currently eligible for the COVID vaccine.

Infection rates among that age group aren't just higher than the general population, they are significantly higher. Zero-to nine-year-olds have infection rates right now that are more than 50% higher than other Vermonters.

This is also a recent phenomenon. We've seen infection rates in that younger age group jump threefold since early September. Early September, of course, happens to be the moment when many of those kids went back to pre-K or elementary school. You know, I hate to speculate here, but you have to wonder if there's a causal effect between the return to in-person learning and rates jumping.

We do know that young kids are far less likely to suffer severe health outcomes as a result of COVID-19. We know that no one under the age of 18 has died of COVID-19 in Vermont since the pandemic began.

More from VPR News: News roundup: Four more Vermonters die from COVID-19, bringing death toll to 339

But there are two kids in the hospital due to COVID-19 as we speak right now. More than a half-dozen kids have been hospitalized as a result of the virus since the delta variant arrived in Vermont. So, the concern for parents is real.

Finally, Pete a couple weeks ago, the Scott administration announced a new testing program for kids in Vermont schools to contain the spread of the virus in classrooms. How successful has that initiative been in identifying and isolating COVID cases in schools so far?

Well, no school has actually been able to institute this “Test to Stay” program yet. It involves the use of rapid antigen tests administered at schools to bypass quarantine for kids that come into close contact with somebody who's COVID positive.

A couple of districts, according to Education Secretary Dan French, may have this antigen testing program up and running within the next couple weeks. He says it could take longer, though, for other districts to implement this new testing program.

Staffing is a huge issue with that. The Agency of Education says it can't solve that problem for districts, but it's going to try to overhaul contact tracing protocols in a way that may free up staff time to do this rapid test program.

In the meantime, these new COVID numbers among youngsters are only intensifying calls for stricter COVID mitigation measures in Vermont schools, and a lot of those calls are coming from some pretty prominent public health officials.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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