MONTPELIER — More than 26,600 Vermonters have now received their first shot of the novel coronavirus vaccine, though officials warn there are now two variants of the virus that have their attention.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday news conference, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation who has been analyzing the pandemic data, said cases have never been higher in the United States.
“With the country averaging close to a quarter million new cases on a daily basis,” Pieciak said.
Vermont has seen an increase in cases, as well. It’s no longer uncommon to see new cases in the triple digits. There were 109 new cases of the virus in the state reported Monday and 167 reported Tuesday.
Pieciak said during the past five days, Vermont has seen more new cases than in all of May, June, July, August and September combined.
The death toll is now 158 in the state after two more deaths were reported Tuesday.
He said an average of more than 3,000 people are now dying from the virus every day in the U.S.
Regionally, he said, hospitalizations are up. There are currently 51 people hospitalized in Vermont as consequence of the virus and 10 of them are in intensive care.
Pieciak said the data suggests the increased cases are because of holiday gatherings.
He said cases are predicted to continue to rise into early February, with a possible average of 300 cases per day, before they start falling again. While the increase is concerning, Pieciak said the state would need to see 380 cases per day to approach the level of ICU capacity in Vermont.
According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, more than 26,600 residents, or 4.3% of the population older than 16, have received their first dose of the vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. The state has reported 1,781 people have now received both shots of the vaccine.
Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said a new, more transmissible variant of virus has arrived in the U.S., so-called B-117. Levine said this variant, which is 50% more transmissible, has been found in 10 states, including Connecticut and New York. He said residents should expect to see the variant in Vermont, though. it hasn’t been confirmed here yet.
He said those at the state’s public health lab are working with their counterparts at the University of Vermont on developing ways to rapidly sequence the genome of the virus in an attempt to find the variant.
Levine said a second variant has been found in South Africa, but that one doesn’t appear to have made its way to the U.S.
He said it appears the two available vaccines are still effective against B-117, or the “United Kingdom variant,” but it’s unknown if they will work on the South African version of the virus.
The virus could mutate to a point where the vaccines no longer work. Levine said he’s mildly concerned about that, but it highlights the importance of getting as many people vaccinated now as quickly as possible so the virus doesn’t have as many opportunities to mutate.
“It really is a race against the clock, in some sense. Because we know the current vaccine and what it is effective against,” he said.
While emergency responders, health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities continue to receive their first shots of the vaccine, state officials are expected to give an update on the next phase of vaccinations Friday. Officials have said that phase, with a focus on older citizens first, likely won’t start until the end of the month.