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New Hampshire and Vermont are excelling in COVID-19 vaccination, but there’s plenty more to do

  • Phil Greene, a Lebanon firefighter and paramedic, left, gives Steve Heath, of Andover, N.H., right, a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at the former JC Penney in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, April 15, 2021. As of April 2, New Hampshire residents over the age 16 or older became eligible to receive the vaccine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The line for COVID-19 vaccines at a clinic run by the New Hampshire National Guard at the former JC Penney in West Lebanon, N.H., ran outside on a rainy Thursady, April 15, 2021. The clinic had scheduled 1,300 appointments, almost triple the daily capacity that the National Guard could serve at their site in Claremont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vasanta Kommineni, of Grantham, shared her umbrella with Ann Brownell, of Charlestown, left, as they waited in the rain with Alex Garcia, of Plainfield, second from right, and Tom Goodrich, of Lyme, right, to get their COVID-19 vaccines outside the former JC Penney in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, April 15, 2021. The clinic ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and served 1,300 people with appointments. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sharon Morgan, a volunteer with Upper Valley Medical Reserve Corps, middle, applies a bandage to the vaccination site on Jim Goodrich, of Lebanon, right, as Bonnie Hepler, a National Guard medic records Goodrich's information at the former JC Penney in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, April 15, 2021. After receiving the shot people waited for up to 30 minutes to make sure they did not experience side effects. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2021 9:29:22 PM
Modified: 4/17/2021 9:29:20 PM

WEST LEBANON — Residents of the Twin States continue to get vaccinated at relatively high rates and mask mandates in New Hampshire are easing, but COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates also remain high.

When ranked nationally, New Hampshire comes in second and Vermont fourth in terms of COVID-19 vaccine administration per 100,000 people, according to the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation’s weekly COVID-19 modeling report.

As of Thursday morning, 181,500 Vermonters, 29% of the state’s population, and 363,300 Granite Staters, almost 27% of the population, were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID data tracker. A larger share had received at least one dose: in Vermont, 278,600, nearly 45%, and in New Hampshire, 764,600, more than 56%.

“We’ve done great, in fact much better as far as the country is concerned,” Dr. Jose Mercado, a staff hospitalist and the associate hospital epidemiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said in an interview last week.

At the same time, however, the states have been reporting more new cases each day; New Hampshire is averaging about 450 new cases daily and Vermont 141. Those numbers are well below the peak of the winter surge, but still above the low numbers of last summer. In New Hampshire, that average is up at least 10% from the week before and at about the same level as when the state first instituted its mask mandate in mid-November.

Similarly, hospitalizations in New Hampshire stood at 130 this week and in Vermont at about 30. As with cases, those numbers are down from this winter, but above those from last summer. In New Hampshire, current hospitalizations exceed the number the state had during its first surge last May and are roughly equivalent to where they were when the state issued its mask mandate as the second surge was growing in the fall.

The “concern now with the increasing positivity rate and the uptick in hospitalizations is that we may be looking at another potential surge,” Mercado said.

The two sets of numbers, one showing gains in the effort to return to normal and the other that the pandemic continues, illustrate the difficulty of balancing the desire to reopen the economy and return to normal with a need to prevent illness and further mutations of the virus.

Younger people still at risk

Though both states report that most people 65 and older have now been vaccinated, due to their higher risk of developing serious illness should they contract the virus, many younger residents are still awaiting their shots, including some who are at higher risk due to their living conditions or employment-related exposure such as college students, restaurant workers and grocery store employees.

While the rate of COVID-19 related deaths in the Twin States has decreased since the peak this winter, the death rate due to COVID-19 is “still unacceptably high,” Mercado said. Such deaths tallied 1,266 in New Hampshire and 242 in Vermont as of Friday.

In addition, though younger people may be at lower risk of serious or life-threatening illness, somewhere between 10% and 30% may develop a post-acute COVID syndrome that can include “persistent symptoms that can really be debilitating for them” and last for weeks or months following the initial illness, he said. This syndrome can prevent people from working, and performing their usual activities and can even affect people’s mental health, he said.

Because most people still do not yet have immunity to COVID-19, Mercado said he continues to urge people to continue wearing masks, and to avoid unnecessary travel and large gatherings.

“(We’re) not at the point that we should let our guard down,” he said. It’s “about having a little bit more patience (and) a little bit more endurance in following the mitigation strategies.”

By Monday, all residents of both Vermont and New Hampshire age 16 and older will be eligible to schedule appointments for vaccination. Out-of-staters also can begin registering in New Hampshire on Monday, and college students with out-of-state addresses can begin registering in Vermont on April 30. Federal and state leaders have targeted a return to normalcy by July 4, although vaccination plans remain uncertain for children under 16, for whom no vaccines have yet been authorized for use in the U.S.

In the meantime, states already have begun rolling back restrictions, with Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu allowing the statewide mask mandate to expire this past Friday.

Some local mask mandates remain in place, including in Lebanon and Hanover, and Sununu said last week that the state is still encouraging mask-wearing.

“The pandemic is not over and we are not declaring victory by any means,” he said.

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at Dartmouth’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center who has been following the Twin States’ response to the pandemic, said that though younger people and college students will become eligible for vaccination on Monday, it will take a weeks or months for them to get their shots and for them to take effect. She said it’s a mistake to roll back restrictions too soon and rely on vaccination as the only tool to prevent transmission.

“I think we’re at a very precarious point in the pandemic right now,” she said. People can “look ahead with great optimism to the summer. It’s this next month or several weeks that concern me the most right now.”

Alice Ely, executive director for the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, said she’s not surprised by the climbing case counts, but she thinks that including non-residents in the state’s vaccination rollout beginning on Monday will help bring case counts down.

“We need to be able to move quickly to get the vaccine to those folks (and) encourage those folks to get out,” she said.

Dartmouth College also is eager to get students vaccinated and will require that students do so before next fall, the provost announced last week.

Beyond Dartmouth’s mandate, Ely said she hopes younger people will get the message that vaccination will help protect them as well as their family members and the community at large from illness and from further mutations in the virus that might make it more difficult to control.

They’re “doing everyone a community service if they will agree to get vaccinated,” she said.

Access expanding

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine in the Twin States has gradually become easier in recent months, and Ely said she anticipates access will continue to improve as time goes on.

After beginning in December with hospital-based clinics for health care workers and clinics in nursing homes for residents and staff, public vaccination sites now have popped up in former department stores, as well as at hospitals and pharmacies around the region. In New Hampshire, people are required to sign up through the state’s website, while in Vermont people can sign up through the state site or directly through pharmacies. Phone numbers are also available.

“The availability of vaccine for folks that can go through the state system is really so much more,” said Ely, who has been helping to organize vaccination clinics for specific groups on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley. It “works very efficiently as long as it’s working.”

To distribute vaccines to groups that would otherwise have trouble accessing them, the Public Health Council has set up clinics for residents of senior living communities and for teachers. Next week, the council is scheduled to hold a clinic for people referred by community organizations such as Listen Community Services, Headrest and the HIV/HCV Resource Center. And the council will continue to “scan the environment for opportunities where people are not getting access,” she said.

While two months ago the list of people without access was long, Ely said she anticipates that pretty soon everyone 16 and older will have an equal opportunity to get the vaccine.

“I think what we’re going to see is that the ability to get to them is easier,” she said.

It’s not yet clear if or to what degree last week’s announcement that federal and state health agencies would pause administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to reports that six women — of the nearly 7 million people who had received the vaccine — developed serious blood clots. But President Joe Biden and the Twin States’ governors said for now at least they will move forward with their vaccination efforts using the two other vaccines currently authorized in the U.S.

Mercado said he was less concerned that the J&J pause might affect vaccine supply than that the incident might create hesitancy in those who have yet to be vaccinated. He noted that people who get COVID-19 are at an elevated risk for developing blood clots. He encouraged people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to seek out reliable sources for information, and people who’ve already received their shots to talk to others about it.

“I think sharing experiences is very powerful,” he said.

Vaccines are now available in three locations along Route 12A in West Lebanon, in the former JCPenney, as well as Walgreens and Walmart, all of which are along the Advance Transit bus route, Ely said. In addition, DHMC in Lebanon also has begun hosting clinics, including on Saturdays, which Ely said further expands access in the Upper Valley.

Though for now, people are still required to make vaccination appointments in advance, Ely said she foresees a day in the not-too-distant future when walk-in appointments are available.

“I don’t think that’s today (or) next week,” she said. But, for some, walk-in clinics will “make it a lot easier (and) less stressful.”

To register for vaccination in New Hampshire, visit vaccines.nh.gov online or call 211 or 866-444-4211. In Vermont, visit healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine or call 855-722-7878.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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