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Vt. shifts to providing antigen tests at state sites

“The metric to watch is the hospitalizations, and particularly the hospitalizations for those who have COVID,” and those are declining significantly.
— Gov. Phil Scott

Vermont plans to begin providing at-home antigen tests for COVID-19 at state-run testing sites, rather than PCR tests, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said PCR tests — which are administered at the testing site, rather than on a take-home basis, and take longer to produce results — will still be available for certain situations, such as international travel.

But he said that rapid tests “help you take action quickly if you test positive: Isolating, telling close contacts and accessing treatment if you’re at high risk.”

Levine also said that, because of the declining rate of COVID prevalence in the state, it’s less necessary to get tested before social gatherings. Testing is still recommended under the latest health department guidance for close contacts or people who develop COVID symptoms. The state also recently dropped its mask recommendation for public indoor spaces.

COVID cases and hospitalizations have dropped significantly in the past couple of months, according to the latest report from the Department of Financial Regulation, which keeps the state’s COVID statistics. Infections are down 94% from their peak during the Omicron variant surge, with the state reporting an average of 119 cases per day and 82 new cases on Tuesday.

Addison County saw only one new COVID-19 case on Monday, and two on Wednesday; but Wednesday was back up to 17 cases, according to the Department of Health.

The number of new hospital admissions for COVID has fallen about 80% from the Omicron peak, according to the report. The health department said 14 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday, including five in intensive care.

The state has also hit a milestone in its battle against Omicron: One person died from COVID-19 on Wednesday, but the state hadn’t reported a COVID death in the previous 10 days. Deaths had lagged behind other metrics, remaining high through February, but only five COVID deaths have occurred so far in March.

Gov. Phil Scott cited the improving numbers in the past few weeks as part of the “progress” Vermont has made since the virus came to the state two years ago. “Because of the tools we now have, and the knowledge we’ve gained, we won’t need to relive the experience of the past 24 months,” he said.

But there are still concerns about the future of COVID in Vermont and nationally with the rise of the BA.2 coronavirus subvariant. This subvariant is more infectious than its Omicron cousin, and is responsible for an 11% rise in global cases, according to the state report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released data this week showing that many wastewater surveillance systems across the country are reporting a rise in viral load in the past two weeks.

Vermont’s data is mixed, with the St. Albans facility reporting an uptick in viral load, while the Burlington wastewater treatment plants appear to report a decline. Scott said Vermont is planning to expand wastewater surveillance, but he was not worried about the wastewater report.

“The metric to watch is the hospitalizations, and particularly the hospitalizations for those who have COVID,” and those are declining significantly, he said. He added that BA.2 appears not to be evading vaccine-induced or natural immunity.

Levine said BA.2 may “drag things on a little” rather than producing a new surge, “so the tail of that epidemic curve is going to be prolonged because BA.2 will keep it alive.”

“There are no certainties,” he said. “But one can look at science and look at data and make some modest predictions. And right now, the models’ prediction is that this is the right time to make the changes that we’re making.”

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