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Reporter debrief: COVID hospitalizations hit an all-time high amid post-Thanksgiving surge

A man answers questions at a podium while a nearby man translates his words into sign language.
ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott delivers his weekly briefing on the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic on Dec. 7, 2021.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Dec. 7, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

COVID hospitalizations hit an all-time high amid a post-Thanksgiving case surge. Meanwhile, the Scott administration is trying to increase access to at-home COVID testing.

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

Connor Cyrus: Earlier, the governor said that 80 [hospitalizations] was the number that would cause a significant strain on our health care system. But as we heard, the administration doesn't seem overly concerned with that number. What's driving the administration's response?

Henry Epp: Well, simply put in context, there are more COVID patients in Vermont hospitals right now than ever before in the pandemic. The Scott administration really emphasizes that most of those who are hospitalized are unvaccinated — about 75%. And some are arriving at the hospital seriously ill and then they test positive when they're admitted.

More from VPR: St. Johnsbury hospital staffers on continuing care during COVID: 'We're hanging on with our fingernails'

But you're right that they really didn't present a level of concern. And I think that part of that points to our hospitalization rate, which while really high, is not as high as some other states that are seeing COVID surges right now. We are seeing serious strain on Vermont's hospitals, when they've been dealing with the pressures of COVID for nearly two full years.

And we can't talk about hospitalizations without talking about cases. What was the administration's response to the surge?

[State Commissioner of Health] Dr. Mark Levine really pointed to the fact that we are in a post-Thanksgiving surge. We are seeing a surge in cases thanks to Thanksgiving gatherings, which was not entirely unexpected. And officials really pointed to the fact that we can expect more cases, and cases to remain high in the coming weeks as we continue to deal with the Delta variant and more holiday gatherings.

Watch the Scott administration's Dec. 7 press conference below:

And as the administration, the state and Vermonters really try to stay out of the hospital, the Scott administration is taking a three-prong approach to try to reduce hospitalizations. Will you walk me through what they're doing to prevent people from going to the hospital?

Yeah, so it's three things. The first is to reduce the need for hospitalizations in the first place by encouraging vaccinations, also encouraging the use of monoclonal antibody treatments for people who are infected.

The second is to basically shift patients out of the ICUs into these other areas. Like I said, sub-acute beds, basically care facilities that aren't a hospital setting.

And then the third part of it is to expand ICU capacity. We've seen a few places like [University of Vermont Medical Center] add some beds, southwestern Vermont Medical Center has also added a few beds.

And we also heard that the state is requesting help from FEMA to get EMT crews into Burlington, Rutland and Bennington. Though it's not certain that we will get that help from FEMA, because other states are dealing with surges even larger than ours.

Another thing that was announced was a new program that will give Vermonters access to free at-home COVID testing kits. So what did we hear about this new program?

So the idea is to make it free for people to get two test kits per week. The key here, though, is that you have to have insurance to get it because the idea is that you'd go to a pharmacy, pick up your tests and then the pharmacy would bill your insurance. They also really cautioned that people will need to be patient around this program — that it's going to take a little while for the whole system to get set up. But they did say that this will go back to Dec. 1. So if you've bought a COVID test at a pharmacy and you have insurance, then you can bill your insurance for that COVID at-home test.

Finally, let's discuss the omicron variant. What did the Scott administration have to say about it?

The key is it's not here in Vermont yet. It is in bordering states, though — in New York and Massachusetts. Seventeen states so far, we heard in the press conference. Public health experts are really emphasizing that the delta variant, which we've been dealing with for months now, is still the main challenge. It's still where most of our cases are coming from.

And there are some encouraging signs that this omicron variant may be less severe, but that's not a certainty. So essentially, officials are still keeping an eye on this variant, but delta is really the main challenge.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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