Vermont moves up vaccine timeline for high-risk conditions, expands access to people of color

Published: 3/9/2021 4:29:19 PM
Modified: 3/9/2021 11:12:34 PM

MONTPELIER — Vermonters 16 and older with high-risk conditions will be able to register for the COVID-19 vaccine beginning Thursday, an earlier date than originally planned, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

Those with high-risk conditions who are 55 and older were eligible beginning Monday, but fewer people in that category signed up than expected, said Gov. Phil Scott — fewer than 10,000 so far.

The state announced the new eligibility criteria last week at the same time it announced new eligibility for teachers and correctional officers. Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said it was possible the news about high-risk eligibility had been lost in the fray.

“With a lot of this that we’ve been doing and opening it up to a lot of groups; this is something that could have been lost,” he said.

Smith said 8,600 teachers and school staff members have made appointments since Monday. In total, 110,000 Vermonters will be eligible for the vaccine as of next week.

Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said the state also plans to expand eligibility to household members of older and high-risk people of color.

A person of color who is eligible to get the vaccine may bring household members to their appointment to get vaccinated as well, even if they wouldn’t normally qualify, Levine said. That is an expansion of an existing program that targeted non-English-speaking households in certain communities.

Levine cited vaccine data that shows Vermonters of color have a significantly lower vaccination rate than white Vermonters. About 22% of white Vermonters have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while rates for other racial groups vary from 2.5% to 13%.

Levine said that, along with vaccine hesitancy and a lack of outreach to people of color, the state’s current vaccine prioritization puts people of color at a disadvantage.

“Our priority schemes today, which emphasize older age and residents in long-term care facilities, do not always help this population, due to the lower likelihood of living in such facilities, or in having sufficient life expectancy” to get to the age that qualifies for a vaccine, Levine said.

Vermonters who are eligible for the vaccine due to their age or condition can go to the state’s website, register through a pharmacy program or call the state hotline to get an appointment. More details are available on the Department of Health’s website.

School staff and correctional officers will receive registration information directly from their employers so they can sign up for an appointment, Smith said. Those appointments will still be made either on the Department of Health website or through a pharmacy, just like other Vermonters’ vaccinations.

“Appointments (for those workers) will be preloaded into the system, and will occur over the next few weeks,” Smith said at Friday’s press conference.

New vaccinations, new rules

Scott also teased a forthcoming loosening of gathering restrictions, citing progress in the vaccination of Vermonters — even though cases have been rising.

The state recorded 901 cases in the past week, an increase over 694 the week before and a significant reversal from the progress the state had been making on declining cases in the past four weeks, according to the state’s latest data presentation.

Some of those new cases could be attributed to the Northern State Correctional Facility outbreak, which involves more than 100 cases so far, said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. But the outbreak doesn’t entirely account for the rise.

Pieciak said the data was less concerning than it might have been otherwise because cases and complications among Vermont’s high-risk population are declining.

Cases are down 70% among Vermonters 70 and older, compared to a 27% decline among Vermonters below 70.

Pieciak said the state predicts seven to 15 deaths in the month of March, compared to 25 in February and 71 in December, the peak of deaths so far in the pandemic.

The vast majority of Vermonters 75 and older — more than 80% — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Pieciak said.

He said census data shows about 70% of Vermonters plan to get vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced guidance that allows vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks, and allows vaccinated people to gather with non-vaccinated people. Vermont has implemented that guidance at a state level.

Scott said that this Friday the state will announce an additional step for unvaccinated Vermonters.

“We’ve taken one of the most methodological and scientific approaches to the virus in the nation, which has made us one of the safest states,” he said. Vermont banned multihousehold gatherings in November after outbreaks cropped up from social events.

Scott emphasized the continued importance of following public health guidance.

“And even as we vaccinate more people, it’s as important as ever to follow the public health guidelines, like wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying physically distant and staying home when sick,” he said. “We’re in the final quarter of this very tough game, so let’s all do our part.”

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