Even Eden, a snow-covered paradise in northern Vermont, is poisoned by omicron.
The nearly vertical ascent of new coronavirus cases in recent weeks, before peaking in mid-January, affected nearly every mountain hamlet, every shuttered factory town, every frozen bucolic college campus in this state despite its near-perfect vaccination record.
Of all the states, Vermont appeared best prepared for the omicron battle: It is the nation's most vaccinated state against COVID, with nearly 80% of residents fully vaccinated—and 95% of residents age 65 and up, the age group considered most vulnerable to serious risk of COVID.
Yet, even this super-vaxxed state has not proved impenetrable. The state in mid-January hit record highs for residents hospitalized with COVID-19; elective surgeries in some Vermont hospitals are on hold; and schools and day care centers are in a tailspin from the numbers of staff and teacher absences and students quarantined at home. Hospitals are leaning on Federal Emergency Management Agency paramedics and EMTs.
And, in a troubling sign of what lies ahead for the remaining winter months: about 1 in 10 COVID tests in Vermont are positive, a startling rise from the summer months when the delta variant on the loose elsewhere in the country barely registered here.
"It shows how transmissible omicron is," said Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital in Bennington. "Even if someone is vaccinated, you're going to breathe it in, it's going to replicate, and if you test, you're going to be positive."
But experts are quick to note that Vermont also serves as a window into what's possible as the U.S. learns to live with COVID. Although nearly universal vaccination could not keep the highly mutated omicron variant from sweeping through the state, Vermont's collective measures do appear to be protecting residents from the worst of the contagion's damage. Vermont's COVID-related hospitalization rates, while higher than last winter's peak, still rank last in the nation. And overall death rates also rank comparatively low.
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Children in Vermont are testing positive for COVID, and pediatric hospitalizations have increased. But an accompanying decrease in other seasonal pediatric illnesses, like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, and the vaccinated status of the majority of the state's eligible children has eased the strain on hospitals that many other states are facing.
"I have to remind people that cases don't mean disease, and I think we're seeing that in Vermont," said Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care specialist at the University of Vermont Health Network in Burlington, the only pediatric intensive-care hospital in the state. "We have a lot of cases, but we're not seeing a lot of severe disease and hospitalization."
She added, "I have not admitted a vaccinated child to the hospital with COVID."
Vermont in many ways embodies the future the Biden administration and public health officials aim to usher in: high vaccination rates across all races and ethnicities; adherence to evolving public health guidelines; and a stick-to-itiveness and social cohesion when the virus is swarming. There is no "good enough" in Vermont, a state of just 645,000 residents. While vaccination efforts among adults and children have stalled elsewhere, Vermont is pressing hard to better its near-perfect score.
"We have a high percentage of kids vaccinated, but we could do better," said Dobson.