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Reporter debrief: Scott admin says COVID hospitalizations are up 12% in the last week, including a spike in ICU cases

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Gov. Phil Scott delivers an update on the administration's response to the COVID pandemic on Nov. 30, 2021.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Nov. 30, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

COVID-related hospitalizations, including ICU admissions, have increased sharply in the past week — especially among unvaccinated people. Meanwhile, vaccination rates are lagging among children ages 5 to 11.

Vermont Edition’s Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Statehouse reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the takeaways from the press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: We heard that cases are down, but that that's probably the result of the holiday weekend — folks not getting tested while they're traveling or they were spending time with family. What else did we learn about case numbers?

Peter Hirschfeld: Yeah, so Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak informed us that cases are down 12% over the past week, but in the next breath said "It's not really a useful statistic because testing volume was so diminished over the Thanksgiving holiday."

More from VPR: UVM Medical Center will increase ICU capacity due to spike in COVID hospitalizations

What's interesting is that while cases are down, hospitalizations are up — and not by an insignificant percentage. Over the past week, we've seen a 12% increase in the number of people being hospitalized due to COVID. And even more notably, there's been a 31% increase in COVID-related ICU admissions. Those more severe outcomes are befalling people who are just not vaccinated yet — 81% of people getting critical care over the past week have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Right. Well, let's talk vaccinations in a key part of this population: children. We learned that Vermont is a leader nationwide in getting children vaccinated. How does that child vaccine program seem to be going?

So about 44% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have gotten their first shot or have made appointments to get that shot. So bit by bit Vermont is signing up these youngsters for COVID vaccines.

Uptake hasn't been nearly as swift as we saw with children aged 12 to 17, and the governor's team say they anticipated that parents might be a little more reluctant to get 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated. They're hoping, though, that what we're seeing here is parents taking a wait and see approach, and that once they see a critical mass of 5- to 11-year-olds safely vaccinated without any side effects, they'll feel more comfortable getting their own kids vaccinated.

Watch the Scott administration's Nov. 30 press conference below:

One thing the administration is a little concerned about, though, is disparities in vaccination rates by region. In Chittenden County, for instance, you have 54% of kids between the age of 5 and 11 that have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. In Essex County that figure is 18%. Education Secretary Dan French has said previously that elementary schools' ability in particular to stay reliably open for in-person learning is going to hinge on getting those vaccination rates as high as possible. And if they can't get those vaccination rates up in places like Essex County, French says it could have a real detrimental effect on operations and schools in those areas.

And we also have heard that the state is going to be rolling out a grants program for schools that get vaccination rates among students up to a certain level. But there are concerns that because of those regional disparities, that grant program could kind of turn into a program that benefits schools in many wealthier districts like in Chittenden County. Is that right?

Yeah. And I mean, this grant program is not enormous money. So in the scheme of a $1.7 billion annual education budget in the state of Vermont for public schools, we're talking pretty small potatoes here.

What I've been hearing from public health experts is that these grants are just not going to be significant enough to figure into a parent's decision about whether or not they're going to get their kids vaccinated, and that they're going to be far more concerned with the health and safety of their child. Those are the questions they need answered — not this carrot of, you know, tens of thousands of dollars for school improvements.

That's right. Well, very briefly, any news about this new variant that we're hearing about?

The Scott administration says it's taking a wait-and-see approach. They say there are a lot of unanswered questions, including how transmissible it, effectiveness of the vaccine on this variant — and so wait and see.

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

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