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State COVID modeler expects a challenging surge in coming weeks

Michael Pieciak
Hilary Niles
/
For VPR
Michael Pieciak is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation.

Driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high in Vermont.

The seven-day case average has increased by 128%, with the state breaking daily case count records several times in the last week.

And state officials don’t expect the situation to get better anytime soon.

VPR's Liam Elder-Connors discussed recent COVID numbers with state Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak. His department is in charge of the state’s COVID modeling. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: Your modeling shows cases are expected to sharply increase in the next month. Can you briefly outline the best- and worst-case scenarios?

Mike Pieciak: Last holiday season, the week before Christmas compared to the week after — cases went up about 37%. This year, they went up about 162%. So on the upper end of that trajectory, new cases could be averaging in the multiple 1,000s — you know, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 per day day. On the lower end of the spectrum, it's still a challenging scenario in terms of cases, up in the sort of high 1,000 range over the next three to four weeks.

The bit of good news at the moment is that the percentage of the number of people that require hospitalization as a result of an omicron case — that percentage has gone down compared to delta or previous strains. However, if there are still so many cases, the big question is "How many hospitalizations will that result in?" And that's something that we're keeping a close eye on.

That's actually related to what I wanted to ask about next. Because there is growing evidence that the omicron variant causes a more mild illness, but hospitalizations in Vermont are still up 17% as of last week. So are we getting close to hitting our maximum hospital capacity if we continue to see high cases, which would also probably lead to more hospitalizations?

First on the availability question, we fortunately have had more availability recently than we have for pretty much the month of November into early December. So on average, we're seeing 20 to 25 ICU beds open in Vermont — those were in the single digits about six weeks ago. And we're seeing anywhere between 60 to 100 or even more general hospital beds available, and those numbers got lower back in November and December as well. So at the moment, the availability piece of that is looking good. However, that doesn't mean that we're out of the woods.

For on the other hand, omicron could potentially impact hospital staffing in the sense that nurses, doctors, other hospital staff could contract the virus themselves, and they may need to isolate for an quarantine for a period of time, which could disrupt the availability of hospital services. The other big question is the exact extent that the omicron variant is less severe — that's still an unknown. We know from all of the evidence that it is less severe. But how much less severe is still an open question.

Well, one question I was wondering about is where we're seeing cases. And in the new modeling that you put out, the case rate among fully vaccinated people had increased by 119%. And the case rate among folks who are not fully vaccinated increased by 64%. And I was just hoping you could sort of explain that data point a little bit, or how you're looking at that. Because I could imagine some people might see that as a sign that the vaccine and boosters aren't as effective against omicron.

When you look at the data over the last four months, usually when we saw a big spike in cases following a holiday — like Halloween, or Thanksgiving,or the weather getting colder like we saw in the fall — the spike was generally contained in that not fully vaccinated population. And the fully vaccinated population stayed in sort of a steady state in terms of the increase. Following the Christmas holiday and the New Year's holiday, we saw a spike in breakthrough infections among the fully vaccinated. So that is consistent with omicron being the dominant variant in Vermont and New England. Omicron has better ability to evade the vaccine. So that is something that we have to acknowledge — that we're seeing that happen. But it shouldn't be viewed as a failure of the vaccine by any means. The vaccines are still highly effective at keeping people out of the hospital, keeping some of the worst symptoms from occurring and keeping people alive.

Mike Pieciak is commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. Mike, thanks for the time.

Thank you very much, Liam.

Liam is a reporter based in Burlington and covers a variety of issues, including courts, law enforcement and housing.
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