Covid deaths in May topped March and April, but cases are beginning to decline

May has proven to be the deadliest month of the BA.2 surge in Vermont, as 30 people died from Covid, according to the latest data from the Vermont Department of Health.

At the same time, the latest data and weekly report from the health department showed that Covid cases dropped for the second week in a row. 

It’s a pattern that’s been reflected in other waves of the pandemic: Even as cases drop, hospitalizations and deaths lag behind, taking weeks or even months to reveal the full toll of a surge.

And despite the drop in cases, the health department still rates statewide Covid community levels as “high,” based on the case rate, hospital admissions and share of beds occupied by Covid patients. The state also reported that the proportions of cases attributed to Covid subvariants BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 were on the rise in Vermont.

Here’s an overview of what state and federal data shows.

High in some counties

While the health department puts statewide community levels at “high,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week had a more optimistic view. As of the most recent CDC update on May 26, seven of Vermont’s 14 counties had “low” Covid community levels, while only two — Rutland and Bennington counties — had “high” levels.

That’s a drop from five counties with high Covid levels the week before. All 14 counties had high transmission rates for the week of May 5.

The CDC uses the same metrics as the health department to determine community levels. In high-level counties, it recommends that people take broad public health measures to prevent transmission, such as mask wearing.

People in medium-level counties should consider taking measures to protect themselves if they are at high risk of severe disease, according to the CDC.

Early indicators and severe disease

Covid cases have dropped about 43% in the past two weeks, according to the health department’s Covid data portal, declining from an average of 302 cases per day to about 171 cases per day. 

Officials have cautioned that Covid case data does not reflect the full extent of the disease in Vermont because of the prevalence of antigen tests, which are not fully reported to state officials. Experts say case data is best used as an indicator of trends, viewed in context with other metrics.

The percentage of PCR tests that have come back positive has also dropped, even though the number of PCR tests each day has declined. About 11% of PCR tests come back positive for the virus, compared to nearly 15% two weeks ago.

Hospitalizations have varied, going from 72 people hospitalized with Covid on May 27 to only 36 on May 31, the lowest total since April. The health department reported that hospital admissions have stayed mostly level from the week before.

But deaths from the virus continue. Including the 30 deaths reported in May, 670 people in Vermont have died of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The total for May could continue to rise as deaths are investigated and added to the data retroactively.

Other benchmarks the health department tracks revealed mixed results. 

Two wastewater treatment plants, in the Essex and Jay areas, reported decreases in viral levels in their sewage. In Burlington, one of three wastewater plants reported a dramatic spike in virus levels, while one plant reported a small increase and another reported a decline.

The percentage of people going to emergency departments with Covid-like symptoms has dropped in recent weeks, but appeared to pick up again in the past few days.

The health department also reported the presence of two subvariants as of May 8: BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, which are both, like BA.2, in the same family as Omicron. BA.2.12.1 is currently the dominant strain in New England, according to the CDC.

The latest data from the health department shows that case and hospitalization rates are very similar for vaccinated and unvaccinated Vermonters. 

However, the health department does not track data about whether someone has received recommended booster shots. Officials have cautioned this could skew the results.

Data on cases by age suggests that older Vermonters, who had reported a surge in Covid cases in late April, have started to report case rates in line with other age groups.

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