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Reporter debrief: Vt. has detected 3 omicron cases, officials say many more are expected

A photo showing Phil Scott at a podium
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ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott presents the latest on Vermont's COVID-19 response at his administration's weekly media briefing on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

After huge spikes, COVID cases and hospitalizations are down in Vermont, state data show. As of today, 37 Vermonters have died of the virus this month.

But during the Scott administration's week press briefing on Tuesday, officials said the reprieve is expected to be temporary as the omicron COVID variant becomes more dominant. Three cases have been confirmed so far.

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

Connor Cyrus: There have been three confirmed cases of the omicron variant here in Vermont. What's the state doing to combat this potentially fast-spreading virus?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: This is something the administration has been saying also for a little while, that omicron is around us. It's only a matter of time. We found out last Saturday, it's in Vermont. I think Dr. Levine said they're only three cases, but they're expecting that number to really spike.

And again, they're kind of giving a mixed message a little bit — saying that this is a serious variant, saying that it's much more transmissible, saying that this variant is more likely to kind of get around the booster in us.

But they're also tempering it a little bit — there's a lot we don't know about omicron. We don't know just how sick it makes people. So, they are just encouraging us to be protective, to get the vaccine, and something that everyone's going to be watching for sure.

More from VPR News: Only some Vermonters qualify for free rapid COVID tests. First, they have to find them

Now, one of the worst-case scenarios that was on one of the projections that we saw was that Vermont could see 1,000 cases per day coming out of the holiday season. Did the administration say that the state could handle this?

Well, the hospitals are kind of going back and forth. It sounds like the Thanksgiving surge hit them very hard. Secretary Smith was talking about that hospital beds are opening up. It sounds like we have as many beds available now, as we've had in a while.

We also heard just before the press conference that the National Guard is coming to Vermont to help out a little bit. So, you know, we're watching it. Again, a big, big question is the omicron — just how sick is it going to make people?

And obviously, we have to talk about the schools. They've said that schools are going to stop school-based contact tracing for the winter break. How do you interpret that information?

We're hearing a lot of reports that schools are very overwhelmed, that teachers are very overwhelmed. Secretary French said that there's been a lot of task force meeting going on; there's been a lot of discussion going on about what's going on in the schools.

Secretary French promised some kind of a report early in the year to handle the workforce issues. He also said that as omicron makes its way through our community that it probably will further affect this workforce issue and school staff are going to get sick. Kids are going to test with it.

So, they seem to think that with more kids getting the vaccine and with masking in schools, that they're going to be able to handle it. An interesting thing that Dr. French also said is that it was expected that in early January, the Agency of Education was going to move ahead with that 80% threshold — and schools that reached the 80% threshold will not have to mask. He walked that back today. And he told us that that most likely will not happen in early January with omicron. And everything else going on, he's not ready to let the schools lighten up on that a little bit.

Watch the Scott administration's Dec. 21 press conference below:

It's interesting that you know, when we talk about masking, you know, it's always — it's obviously been a big topic of conversation here in the state. What was the administration's response today about businesses forcing their employees to wear masks and patrons to wear masks?

Really interesting. It sounded like the guidelines they're giving to businesses, Gov. Scott was saying, they're trying to look at that as incentive to get some of the unvaccinated to get their vaccinations and boosters. They are not forcing businesses to have masking and vaccination mandates. They were just putting it out there that this is something you may want to do.

It seemed like they were also saying that if you're a business, maybe that's going to be incentive. You know. It's something that you want to advertise. You know, if you can say that all of our staff are vaccinated, if you say that you're everyone's going to be masked in our establishment that might be incentive and that you know, if you're going to choose between two restaurants and one restaurant is fully vaccinated, one isn't, that maybe you'll choose that.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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