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Health officials urge young Vermonters to mask up

Published: Mar. 30, 2021 at 6:20 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 30, 2021 at 6:44 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - COVID cases continue to climb in Vermont, hitting the second-highest weekly total of the entire pandemic. And the rise in cases is being driven largely by people in their teens and twenties. State officials Tuesday urged Vermonters, particularly that age group, to double down on masking and avoiding crowds as the home stretch of the pandemic is in sight.

Mollie Gaito and Christian Emerson are in their 20s and say they’re taking the pandemic seriously, including double masking and avoiding gatherings. “Definitely trying to keep it close and local until most of Vermont is vaccinated,” Gaito said.

But they say many of their friends aren’t being as careful now that the weather has warmed up and pandemic fatigue takes over. “They definitely aren’t as careful as we’ve been. There definitely is this sentiment of ‘how long is long enough?’” Emerson said.

Vermont is leading the nation in vaccinating people over the age of 65 and Vermonters over 60 now make up just nine percent of active COVID cases, a decrease of 118-percent thanks to the vaccine. But state health officials are tracking a rising trend in cases among people under 40, including high schoolers, an increase of 34%.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says it’s a combination of factors including warmer weather, pandemic fatigue, and the fact that many of the most vulnerable are now protected. “Wanting the pandemic to be over is not the same as the pandemic actually being over. We still need to do everything we can to reduce the spread of the virus as we vaccinate more Vermonters,” he said.

Though deaths and hospitalizations are expected to keep declining, cases among young people are forecast to climb in the next few weeks to about 250 a day by mid-April. “All the more important for everyone to double down on public health measures, particularly those in the younger age groups. And those who have the ability to get the vaccine, to step up and get it protect themselves and their families,” said DFR Commissioner Mike Pieciak.

Leaders say the spike in cases does not appear to be linked to the recent loosening of guidelines for gatherings, bars, and restaurants. Next week, Governor Phil Scott is slated to release his re-opening plan, laying out the framework and guidance to full reopening. He insists the rising case counts are not setting back the plans. “We think this will provide some assurance of what we’re doing over the next three months as we work toward normalcy,” Scott said.

We’re also expected to learn about new school re-opening guidance next week. Despite the sharp rise in cases among teens and a higher number of school shutdowns this week, the state is not letting up on its push for more in-person learning.

VERMONT EXPANDING PHARMACY PROGRAM, LOOSENING HOSPITAL VISITATION POLICY

Vermont officials on Tuesday announced that vaccinated individuals are now allowed to visit hospitals and that the state’s pharmacy program is expanding.

As of Tuesday, health officials say 36.9% of Vermonters have received at least one vaccination. Upward of 19,000 Vermonters aged 50 and older signed up on the first day of eligibility Monday. The next group scheduled to go is 40 plus this coming Monday. The state is adding vaccination pharmacy partners. That includes CVS locations in Essex, Rutland, and Williston. Starting April 5, Hannaford will offer vaccines at 12 locations.

Officials say those who are vaccinated will now be allowed to visit Vermont hospitals, although hospitals are allowed to set their own guidelines. Visitors will have to present their vaccination cards as evidence.

VACCINATION EXPANDED TO PARENTS CARING FOR KIDS WITH HEALTH PROBLEMS, BIPOC 16+

Vaccination registration is expanding to two new groups. Starting Wednesday, parents caring for kids with health problems that are too young to get vaccinated will be eligible. and on Thursday, any BIPOC individual 16 and older can register.

The announcement was welcome news for families of high-risk children who aren’t eligible for a vaccine yet due to their age. “We were thrilled,” said Matt Pyle, whose 8-year-old daughter Alison, has been battling brain cancer since she was 11-months-old.

The South Burlington family was frustrated that they weren’t prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines, because one virus exposure in their family could delay critical chemotherapy treatments for Alison. “I think we just feel like all the hard work has paid off. And first and foremost, we’re just happy to be vaccinated because it’s what’s best for our child,” Pyle said.

The family and several others have wanted to know why the state’s mission to protect the most vulnerable in the vaccine rollout had overlooked their children, especially because some pediatricians say the children who get the sickest from COVID-19 are those who were medically-fragile.

“Any week or any day that we could do this sooner is better for all of them,” said Dr. Jill Rinehart, a pediatrician at the UVM Medical Center.

After months of pediatricians and different family support organizations urging the administration to take action, health officials finally said yes. “We need to ensure that these parents and caregivers remain healthy enough to care for the child and do not risk bringing the virus into the home,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

We asked why it took until the process was nearly done to prioritize them. “With a limited supply, we wanted to get to those who were at most risk of hospitalization or death. And that didn’t rise to that level at that point in time. With the increased amount of supply, we felt that it was important to do whatever we could to protect them and their families,” said Gov. Phil Scott.

Pyle says their family is grateful that state officials listened to them. “We can all debate about the timing, but the bottom line is they got it done and I appreciate that,” he said.

He says his family will be ready to enroll first thing Wednesday morning. Families do not need a special code to sign up.

If your family includes a child with high-risk conditions who is under the age of 16, you can sign up online or by calling the health department’s vaccine registration line. It’s unclear exactly how many families this will affect -- statewide.

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