MONTPELIER — The state’s top health official says “the pandemic is not over.”

State officials also said self-contact tracing and self-testing will likely be part of the virus mitigation strategy in the near future.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s regular news conference Tuesday, the state presented the latest data which showed coronavirus cases have gone up 16% during the past seven days and 64% during the past 14 days. Vermont has seen its positivity rate increase 16% during the past seven days while testing only increased 0.2% during that span.

There have been 19 deaths from the virus this month as of Nov. 16.

State officials have said this virus isn’t going to go away and the pandemic will eventually turn endemic where this virus is managed similarly to other viruses such as the flu. But Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that time has not come yet.

“The pandemic is not over,” Levine said.

He said he knows many people are done thinking about the virus, but this event, the first such global event in more than a century, is not over yet.

He said vaccines have made it so people’s lives have changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic, but the virus continues to evolve and fight back. Levine said we aren’t yet at a place where immunity is high enough that the virus can circulate and not cause large spikes in cases.

“The virus is spreading at high levels in our communities. It still threatens the worst outcomes, especially among people who are not vaccinated and those at high risk. It’s also endangered our health care system,” Levine said.

The state saw two such spikes last week, when nearly 600 new cases were reported last Thursday, a new state record, followed by just over 500 cases last Friday.

Over the weekend, the state Department of Health sent out an announcement stating it can no longer conduct contact tracing for every positive case that’s reported.

The announcement said, “Due to the currently large number of COVID-19 cases, we are asking Vermonters who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at home away from other people and begin reaching out to close contacts immediately. The Health Department will prioritize contact tracing to people at higher risk. You may not receive a phone call from a contact tracer, but you still need to stay home and away from others, and follow these steps to stop further spread.”

Mike Smith, secretary of the state Agency of Human Services, said Tuesday according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only a few states engage in as much contact tracing as Vermont. Smith said the state is considered a leader in contact tracing, but the delta variant requires the state to revisit its tactics to see if there is another strategy available.

He said the state has the equivalent of about 150 people working full-time on contact tracing. But he said with a fast-moving variant like delta, the state needs to do better and needs to speed up the process.

Supply chain issues caused by the pandemic are known nationwide. Smith said when supplies are available, the state will rely more on rapid antigen tests so someone will know if they have the virus in a matter of hours instead of days the traditional PCR test takes. He said residents are asked to reach out to close contacts immediately after a positive test instead of waiting for a call from the state.

“This will significantly speed up the notification of contacts,” he said.

Smith said the Department of Health’s website, (www.healthvermont.gov) has more details and instructions. He said the state will shift its contact tracers to focus on outbreaks and vulnerable populations.

The state has already started using antigen tests as part of its “test to stay” program, where students who are close contacts to a positive case take such a test prior to entering the school building at the start of the day.

Officials said residents will likely need to conduct some of their own testing in the future, as well. This would essentially expand the “test to stay” program to the workplace, where someone who is a close contact to a positive case takes an antigen test before heading in to work. Levine said the tests currently cost around $20 and come in packs of two.

The governor said if supplies continue to be an issue, he would urge President Joe Biden to use the Defense Production Act to increase them.

For vaccination numbers, Smith said the percentage of children aged 5 to 11 years old who have been signed up for a vaccine appointment increased from about 30% last week to 36% this week. Those children were recently granted access to the Pfizer vaccine from the federal government.

State officials said Vermont leads the nation in administration of booster doses of the vaccine. The state reported 26% of the fully vaccinated population has received a booster dose so far, with 40.1% of those who are 50 years old and older receiving a booster and 55.2% of those 65 years old and older.

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com

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