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Vt. health officials defend omicron strategy shift

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 9:49 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2022 at 8:37 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - As Vermont COVID case counts continue to soar, Vermont health officials Tuesday outlined their shift to a new strategy that jettisons contact tracing and embraces rapid testing.

Big changes are coming from the state as Vermont enters a new stage of the pandemic. After criticism from teachers about changes announced Friday for contract tracing, officials Tuesday admitted that while the changes were abrupt, they were needed because of both the highly-contagious nature of the omicron variant and the shorter incubation period.

“Both from an operational perspective and a public health perspective, we needed to make that change and we needed to make that shift sooner rather than later,” said Vt. Education Secretary Dan French.

Under the new guidance, schools will drop time-consuming PCR surveillance testing. “We believe PCR surveillance testing has lost much of its value,” said Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

Contact tracing to each individual contact is also out. Now, if there’s a positive case, the entire classroom will be identified as close contacts. Families will be notified and unvaccinated students will be sent home with antigen tests. They’ll have to test for five days in a row and be negative to stay in school.

Officials say this means more responsibility placed on families along with personal responsibility. “There’s a lot of focus on the schools but we forget about all of the things happening in the community that we don’t know about. And I think just encouraging folks to be honest and transparent about symptoms whatever they are,” said Dr. Rebecca Bell, the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

FREE RAPID TESTS TO BE DISTRIBUTED ONLINE WEDNESDAY

Leaders say for every known positive case there are likely four or five cases that may not be reported. To better identify infected people and stop them from spreading the virus, more antigen tests are on their way to the general public. Governor Phil Scott says the state on Wednesday at 10 a.m. will activate a new website that will allow Vermonters to order rapid tests online. There will be 250,000 kits available initially. “People can request no more than two kits -- that’s four tests per household. We expect them to go quickly,” Scott said. This is in addition to tests distributed to schools and the half-billion tests coming soon from the Biden administration.

And plans for distributing KN95 masks to child care centers are in the works too. Even then, Vermont is forecast to record up to 6,000 cases daily through the end of the month, three times higher than recent single-day records. “We hope this difficult transition period will ultimately help us get to a time where we can live with this virus more easily,” Dr. Levine said.

Data shows that nearly 10% of all people in New England have had omicron in the last 10 days. After forecast record case counts, the state is then forecasting a rapid decline in cases throughout February.

Meanwhile, officials hope the tests and changes to school guidance will keep kids in school and parents at work. For the second week, a number of schools opted to shut down because of staffing shortages. Secretary French says districts will be required to make up these days just like a snow day and that remote classes do not qualify. He says districts will be able to apply for a waiver though.

COVID DASHBOARD TO BE UPDATED WEDNESDAY

The state says 8,000 people were left in the lurch waiting days for their COVID test results.

The delay affects Vermonters who took PCR tests through state-run clinics on January 6th and 7th. Officials blamed a glitch in their reporting platform. “I want to apologize for the frustration this has caused Vermonters. we have resolved this issue. we expect the remaining people experiencing these delays will have their results by the end of the day,” said AHS Interim Secretary Jenny Samuelson.

The state says the turnaround time for a PCR test is now back to two to three days. Another result of the glitch was problems with the state’s COVID case dashboard, which hasn’t been updated since Sunday morning. Officials say 4,300 cases from tests taken between Friday and Monday will be added to the online tally by Wednesday.

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Boosters available to Vt. adolescents; State to launch rapid test by-mail program

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