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Reporter debrief: State modeling shows COVID cases, hospitalizations starting to trend down

A photo showing Gov. Phil Scott standing at a podium and an American Sign Language interpreter signing next to him.
Screenshot
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ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at his Jan. 25, 2022 press briefing about Vermont's ongoing response to COVID-19.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Jan. 25, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

They addressed the state of Vermont’s hospitals at this stage of the pandemic, recent changes to school coronavirus guidance, and at-home test availability.

That's as key indicators show the omicron surge may be calming down in Vermont.

Vermont Edition’s Connor Cyrus spoke with reporter Lexi Krupp about the takeaways from the press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: So Lexi, there's a lot to dig into from today about schools and testing supplies. But before we talk about that, what's the state of COVID-19 and the omicron variant in Vermont today? And how are things like cases and hospitalizations trending?

Lexi Krupp: So cases are down across the Northeast and in the state. We have some data from Burlington's wastewater showing decreased viral loads, so this isn't just tied to testing.

And COVID hospitalizations are still some of the highest they've been throughout the pandemic. But they're starting to go down a little bit. And trends in Vermont hospitalizations — you know, of those people hospitalized, we're continuing to see older Vermonters, even if they're vaccinated, making up the bulk of Vermont's hospitalizations going forward.

What the state's modeling for the pandemic shows is that, you know, if you look at New York and Connecticut, they're starting to see hospitalizations ticking down. And Vermont is expected to follow, you know, maybe a week behind them.

The governor and his administration, how are they feeling about hospitalizations? Is something that they are concerned about?

You know, I think that they're feeling like the state's hospitals can handle the COVID patients that are going to come in, that we know we're going to come in over the next few weeks, and that the state's hospitals are going to be able to provide the normal services that they usually do, you know, people coming into the emergency department for heart attacks or whatever.

So yeah, I think they feel like things aren't great, but we're gonna be able to get through this. And part of that is also getting help from FEMA workers, from nurses and paramedics ... those staffers are still in two hospitals. There's also staff from the National Guard in several hospitals across the state helping with things like cleaning patient rooms, or admitting patients, you know, into the hospital. So there's still help for our health care system.

Watch the Scott administration's Jan. 25 press conference below, courtesy of ORCA Media:

Press Conference - Governor Scott and Administration Officials Weekly Update 1/25/2022

There's help for them. But a place where I think a lot of people are looking for help are teachers and schools. And there's a lot of confusion about the guidance for schools, why they changed at the beginning of the month, and what they are.

Lexi, could you walk us through what we heard from Education Secretary Dan French today about school guidance and why it changed?

Yeah, so this is reiterating what was announced a couple weeks ago, Test to Stay was shifted to a test-at-home model. So testing is happening with families, not in schools as much.

And then there was a change in who is considered a close contact, trying to simplify how things worked so that school nurses didn't have to, you know, sort of make these labor intensive lists of who was close to who for this amount of time. They're just saying that any kid in the class of someone who tested positive is considered a close contract.

You know, Secretary Dan French said that this change was a necessary evolution of our testing. He said the timing was not ideal or even good. But he just, you know, said that this had to happen because of what we're seeing with omicron. It's so much more transmissible. And what we were doing before just really wasn't working.

The Test to Stay program changed to a test-at-home, and that put a lot of pressure on parents to make sure that kids are testing negative if they were a close contact.

That also put pressure on schools to pass out these at-home test kits. We heard that several schools and school districts are running out of tests. How are schools doing and what's next, if there are no tests?

So it was interesting, you know, Secretary Dan French said that there should be enough tests for schools. But it's just not really what we're hearing on the ground.

And schools are still I, should add, continuing to struggle with, you know, can they staff, do they have enough staff to safely have schools operate?

You know, last week we saw a K-8 school in St. Johnsbury say that they didn't, and they had to close school on Friday. So schools are still struggling a lot. But one thing in my reporting that I heard is that this switch to simplify contact tracing has been helpful.

More from VPR: Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

Now let's take a step back from schools. What's going on with these at-home antigen tests? How many of them passed out, and is the state expected to get more? I mean, that seems to be like one of those ongoing problems, how do I get my hands on a test? So what do we know about those?

So we heard that the state and federal government have handed out a lot of tests, a million rapid tests have been distributed in the state since December. And nearly 200,000 tests went to schools and child care centers in recent weeks.

We heard Gov. Phil Scott say that he's been on the phone with CEOs of some of these testing companies trying to make sure that Vermont is getting its fair share of rapid tests. Particularly as you know, we saw that huge push from the federal government to be able to mail out tests to anyone who signed up online.

So rapid tests continue to be an issue, the supply continues to be an issue.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp:

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Connor Cyrus joined Vermont Public as host and senior producer in March 2021. He was a morning reporter at WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island. A graduate of Lyndon State College (now Northern Vermont University), he started his reporting career as an intern at WPTZ, later working for WAGM in Presque Isle, Maine, and WCAX Channel 3, where he covered a broad range of stories from Vermont’s dairy industry to the nurses’ strikes at UVM Medical Center. He’s passionate about journalism’s ability to shed light on complex or difficult topics, as well as giving voice to underrepresented communities.
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