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Statewide Covid levels ‘low’ as PCR testing continues to decline

Covid-19 community levels remain “low” in Vermont this week, the state Department of Health reported in its latest surveillance update on Wednesday.

The department reported slightly elevated cases, hospitalizations and hospital admissions, but all were under the threshold for “low” levels.

The latest numbers also demonstrate the need to interpret case data with caution: The department is reporting the lowest levels of PCR testing since the earliest days of the pandemic in spring 2020.

About 750 PCR tests have been conducted per day in the past week, compared to more than 17,000 at the peak of infections in January 2022. The testing rate dropped even compared to July of this year, when the department reported about 1,400 tests per day despite low levels of Covid.

At-home antigen tests became widely available in pharmacies and health care centers in fall 2021, giving Vermonters an alternative to PCR tests, which can take days to return results. The department rolled back state-run PCR testing centers in June 2022, leaving doctors’ offices as the main place where the tests are still available.

The health department now relies on other data points, such as Covid-related hospital admissions and emergency room visits for Covid-like symptoms, to give a real-time picture of the state of the virus. At this point, none of those indicators point to a rise in Covid levels. 

But experts have cautioned that the unreliability of case data can make it harder to accurately track the virus or to provide detailed information about how it is spreading in the community.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated 12 of Vermont’s 14 counties as having “low” Covid levels as of Thursday. Only Rutland and Bennington counties were rated as “medium.”

The health department reported 581 Covid cases in the past week, up about 31% from the week before.

There were 39 patients newly admitted with the disease in the past week, compared to 37 the week before. As of Wednesday, a total of 38 patients were in Vermont hospital beds with Covid, including two in intensive care.

The department reported four additional deaths, bringing September’s total to four, compared to 19 in August. Overall, 719 people have died since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

The department also began publishing data on Wednesday of how many young children have received their recommended Covid vaccines. About 8% of children under 5 years old have gotten vaccinated, according to the data. 

Experts early on during the rollout of young children’s vaccines said uptake could be low because of parental hesitancy and because the vaccines are given out at regular appointments rather than through a dedicated campaign. The vaccine is primarily distributed through pediatricians and other doctors’ offices but is available at state clinics as well.

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