Highly vaccinated Vermont has spiking COVID cases. What happened?

Highly vaccinated Vermont has spiking COVID cases. What happened?
Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP

When the vaccines first began to roll out on a national scale early this year, the state of Vermont was one of the earliest leaders in volunteering to be jabbed. The state quickly established itself as one of the early adopters and is now ranked as the most highly vaccinated in the nation. At this point, the state boasts a rate of just shy of 80% who have received at least one shot, with the majority of the remainder being made up of children who only just became eligible.

There are a variety of reasons they were able to do this, both anecdotal and statistically supportable. First, the state only has a population of 623,000, largely condensed into a few major population centers, so it wasn’t hard to set up pods for everyone. Also, no matter how controversial it may be to say this, Vermont is one of the whitest states in the nation (92.5% white, 1.32% Black, 1.3% Hispanic). Vaccine hesitancy in America has typically been highest among minorities, so they had less of that to contend with. On top of that, they tend to have a fairly socialist population that doesn’t mind having the government tell them what to do. (They keep electing Bernie Sanders to every imaginable office he likes, so what do you expect?)

So with such a high rate of supposedly immunized residents, why are they having a spike in COVID cases? Granted, it’s not much of a spike compared to more densely populated areas. On October 16 they recorded 342 new cases and two deaths. But still, their numbers are trending in the wrong direction as we make our way through autumn. What gives? According to a report this weekend from the Boston Globe, Vermont may be a “victim of its own success.” They rushed to get vaccinated early and now that may be coming back to bite them.

Infectious disease experts suspect that Vermont, in a way, may be a victim of its own success, leaving it more vulnerable to infections now, especially compared to states that didn’t blaze as impressive an early path.

Because so many Vermonters stepped forward early to get their shots, many may have waning immunity now, making them more susceptible to breakthrough infections. And because the state did such a good job of keeping COVID case numbers down through much of the pandemic, fewer Vermonters developed natural immunity from actually fighting the virus.

Add the sheer public weariness with masks and social distancing after 20 months of COVID, doctors say, and Vermont had a combustible mix as it headed into fall.

So this analysis centers on two different factors, both of which tie into the ongoing national debate over vaccines. The first is the question of the durability of the immunity the vaccines provide. Vermont hit the 70% vaccination mark on June 1, supposedly the magic number for general suppression or herd immunity. That means that as of tomorrow, the vast majority of Vermonters will have been vaccinated for five months or less. Does this mean that the current vaccines are really that fragile? If so, you can expect Vermont to be pointed to when people start talking about mandatory boosters. (And I’ll bet any of you a box of donuts right now that those executive orders are already being drawn up.)

The second element being raised here is also about herd immunity, but of the type that people acquire naturally. Vermont rolled out the vaccines rapidly and before they saw their first major outbreaks. They reached their worst spike of the entire pandemic (prior to this month) on April 4th of this year, and even then they were only averaging 244 new cases per day. When compared to other states, Vermont only has a minuscule number of people who contracted and survived COVID. In other words, the percentage of people with naturally acquired immunity in Vermont is next to nothing compared to the states that were overflowing their hospitals’ ICU beds.

This leaves “the Vermont question” as something of a split decision as we continue to debate vaccine mandates. Are they seeing their worst surge of the pandemic now because of a lack of naturally acquired herd immunity? Or is it because the efficacy of the vaccines fades so rapidly that everyone will be pushed to get booster shots every six months rather than annually as we do with the flu vaccine?

If I had to place a bet on this, I would guess that the Democrats and socialists (but I repeat myself) who are cheering for the government to crack the whip and force everyone to comply or be banished will claim the latter and push for 6-month vaccinations. Meanwhile, those in the Do Not Comply ranks will use this data to insist that mandatory vaccinations are tamping down our ability to develop true herd immunity. Don’t expect any firm answers from the White House, the FDA, or the CDC. As usual, they’ll almost certainly continue to keep cherry-picking the data that best serves the current policy goals and moving the goalposts down the field.

The first thing we’ll need to tackle, however, is the booster question. Are they really going to start mandating boosters, and if so, how long after your initial vaccinations will they become mandatory before you are sent back to the “unfit for decent society” category? I’m one of the people who made the decision early on to get vaccinated because of my age and previous, underlying medical conditions, as well as living with a first responder. But that was back in March. It’s already been more than six months for me and I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I’ll go back for a booster before we see more data. Is my CDC card now “expired” and have I been returned to the ranks of the evil, uncompliant mobs that are supposedly trying to destroy the world? (At least according to CNN, anyway.) We need answers to these questions and we need to be prepared for them when they arrive.

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