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What's Driving The Surge Of New COVID-19 Cases In Vermont?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Until now, Vermont has avoided the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The state got really good marks for its early response. But now cases there are surging. And they are spreading. So what happened? Liam Elder-Connors is with us. He's a reporter with Vermont Public Radio. Good morning, Liam.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What happened in Vermont?

ELDER-CONNORS: Well, Vermont has seen that surge that you mentioned. We've added about a little over a thousand cases in the last week. And for the last three weeks in a row, we've actually added more than a thousand cases, which is pretty high here in this state. And while that number might seem small compared to other numbers we hear in the country, Vermont has a pretty small population. So those are a lot of numbers for us. State Health Commissioner Mark Levine says they're not seeing those outbreaks associated with any specific industry or sector, though.

MARK LEVINE: Nothing that's so dramatic that we would immediately say, gee, there's an entire workforce that's at higher risk than another workforce in the state, because that's not really what the data is showing us.

ELDER-CONNORS: So what Levine and other public health officials and state officials are saying is that more spread is being driven by more contagious variants. Like, the B117 U.K. variant is present here in Vermont. And they're also saying people are taking more risks and gathering and that general pandemic fatigue might be contributing to some of this spread.

KING: OK. So some of what we're seeing elsewhere, although, not traceable back to any particular sector. That's interesting. Liam, what is the vaccination rate in Vermont? And is that part of this, do you think?

ELDER-CONNORS: You know, the vaccination rate here is pretty good. Recent data from the state shows we're getting close to - 47% of people who are eligible now have at least one dose...

KING: OK.

ELDER-CONNORS: ...So getting close to half, which is good. But, you know, the issue is that younger people aren't eligible yet. The state has been going through an age banding approach, starting with its older population and moving down to younger people. So people 30 and older this week can get vaccinated. But most of these new cases are among people in their 20s. And they haven't been able to get a shot yet. And so that is likely why we're seeing a lot more spread than we've been seeing than any other time.

KING: So if the state health commissioner tells you some of this is people taking more risks, does that mean that state officials are going to increase restrictions

ELDER-CONNORS: At this point, no. At the press conference last Friday that they had, they said they're planning to kind of keep on moving forward with what they have been doing. And, you know, Vermont still has a mask mandate in place. There are, you know, businesses that are open, including bars. But there are pretty restrict measure - you know, restrictive measures on restaurants and bars. Like, you know, they can only have half capacity, only six people at a table and things like that. And really, state officials, the health commissioner have just been encouraging people to continue to follow mitigation efforts, like wearing masks, physical distancing, avoiding crowds and just encouraging people to sign up for a vaccine when it's your turn. But I've spoken to some public health experts that say the state should be doing more to focus on getting the vaccination rate up among younger people. And so that could include things like having clinics on college campuses to make sure that that population is getting vaccinated, and really just finding ways to make sure that the state is addressing where we're seeing most of the spread right now.

KING: OK. Liam Elder-Connors is a reporter with Vermont Public Radio. Thanks, Liam.

ELDER-CONNORS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "WHY LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.