As Omicron Takes Over, Case Counts Soar

by Doug McClure

MONTPELIER – The Vermont Department of Health’s (VDH) page during the first week of 2022 contained sobering news: “From 7/22/2021 through mid-December, all sequenced specimens were Delta. In mid-December, we began to see our first instances of Omicron, which became the dominant circulating virus by the year’s end.” The much-more-transmissible variant has, according to the CDC and WHO, proven less severe in many cases, but Saturday the VDH reported 2,642 cases, smashing all previous records. Thursday marked the first time the daily case counts went over 2,000. The state also said that the number of tests coming back positive had jumped to 13.8%. 

Hardwick closed out 2021 with 323 cases on December 29, marking a nearly-tenfold increase a year ago. Five days into 2022, that had increased 10% to 361. The Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) announced Friday that, due to increasing case counts, it would no longer be emailing parents about individual cases at schools but instead move to a weekly summary.

OSSU Superintendent Adam Rosenberg wrote in the email that there had been 42 cases in schools in the first week back from vacation. The spike comes as the Agency of Education recommended schools stop COVID surveillance and PCR testing of students and redirect the responsibility for testing to parents. As of press time, Rosenberg had not responded to inquiries about whether the OSSU would be following that guidance, though in the email sent to parents the OSSU said it would continue weekly surveillance testing.

The vaccination level for children and especially the youngest has remained low despite the CDC and state now offering booster shots for those 12 and up. Just 37% of Caledonia children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated, according to the state, which is still higher than Orleans County, where just 26% of children in that age bracket are vaccinated. Just over half of teenagers and those 29 and under are fully vaccinated in Orleans County. In Caledonia County, the 12-17 group is 68% fully vaccinated while those 18-29 are barely over half vaccinated.

Rosenberg said in the email that Hazen Union is hosting vaccine clinics for children 12-17 this Friday, as well as on January 21 and 28. Pfizer doses will be available for first, second, or booster shots. Registration for the upcoming clinics opens about a week before they happen, the email said, and parents wishing to have their children get the shot can register at the VDH site at vermont.force.com/events/s/selfregistration.

“Parents are welcome but not required to attend with their child.  After registering, please email eingpen@ossu.org to let us know what time your child’s appointment is and if you plan to come to Hazen to be present during their vaccination.”

Experts have said while two doses offer some protection against Omicron, a booster dose offers far superior protection.

A bill mandating masks was introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives. Among those introducing the bill was Representative Katherine Sims of Craftsbury. H. 537 “proposes to require all individuals five years of age and older to wear a mask or cloth face covering in public indoor spaces, subject to limited exceptions, in counties in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a ‘high’ or ‘substantial’ community transmission level.” It applies to individuals regardless of vaccination status. The bill also recommends children ages two to four wear a mask under “close adult supervision” in multi-household settings. Exceptions are made for medical reasons, cases where a hearing-impaired person needs to be able to read lips, cases where the employer deems it unsafe, as well as limited-time religious exceptions or for eating. Public indoor spaces are defined as “any enclosed indoor area that is publicly or privately owned, managed, or operated to which individuals have access by right or by invitation, expressed or implied, and that is accessible to the public, serves as a place of employment, or is an entity providing services.” 

Rep. Chip Troiano expressed some ambivalence over the masking bill. He said that he had heard from people both for and against requiring masks, though the emergence of Omicron changed the picture. Regarding the exceptions for those people with medical conditions aggravated by a mask, he said “that may be acceptable,” though Troiano said “I do believe wearing a mask in public does cut the risk of spreading the disease.” His ambivalence is that he feels the status quo is “consistent with [his] long standing support for local control.” Troiano said “I have not really made a decision how I may vote on this issue. None of the towns around here seemed to have been interested in initiating a face covering rule. Two of the towns do not really have any public buildings aside from town hall and they are asking for masking to enter.” He added that his opinion on the bill was influenced by how Omicron progresses and thought that given the number of towns that have passed local requirements a bill might overcome a possible veto by Governor Scott. Troiano added “While in session, we in the Legislature are asked to make decisions that impact the health and safety of all 640,000 Vermonters and not just a few.”