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New England Covid cases rise as delta hits the unvaccinated

Vermont and New Hampshire have seen two of the largest increases in the U.S. in the past two weeks, respectively rising by 60 percent and 56 percent, an NBC News analysis found.

New England is not out of the woods just yet.

Two-week Covid case counts are up in every state in the region except for Connecticut, according to data compiled by NBC News — a stark reminder that unvaccinated people continue to face a serious risk from the delta variant of the coronavirus even in areas with high vaccination rates.

Vermont and New Hampshire have had two of the largest increases in the U.S., respectively rising by 60 percent and 56 percent, the data showed. Covid-related deaths have held steady across New England over the last two weeks, going up only by 4 percent over the previous two weeks. However, deaths in Vermont went up by 52 percent — from 19 to 29 — according to the NBC News tally.

Dr. Jan Carney, associate dean for public health at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, said that the state has recorded some breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated people but that the current rise in cases is driven mostly by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant among unvaccinated people. 

Vermont still has one of the lowest population-adjusted case rates in the U.S. However, the state’s case rate in the last two weeks is one of the 10 worst in the country. Since the start of the pandemic, 45,000 people in Vermont have reported contracting the disease, 1 of 10 of those in the last two weeks alone.

The state also set a new high for its seven-day case count Saturday, averaging 369 cases per day.

The situation in Vermont is striking given that the state has recorded fewer than 400 deaths during the pandemic; 48 deaths over the last four weeks means more than 1 in 8 of all deaths have happened since mid-October. Vermont still has the lowest death rate of any state, however.

The rise in deaths in Vermont is also notable because it is the most vaccinated state, with 72 percent of residents fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. (Guam and Puerto Rico have higher vaccination rates.)

Seasonal factors, including the onset of colder weather that is forcing people to spend more time indoors, are also playing a role, Carney said.

Carney added that the troubles vary by county, saying the surge in cases is most acute in rural areas in the northeastern part of the state.

“These are areas that also have the lowest vaccination rates in the state,” she said. “So that confirms that these factors are all working together, and it’s why we’re continuing to emphasize the essentialness of vaccines as our primary prevention strategy.”

In addition to rising caseloads, health departments in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are recording upticks in hospitalizations.

Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, New Hampshire, said many of the newly admitted patients who require intensive care are younger compared to earlier stages of the pandemic, when older people made up the bulk of those who were at highest risk of severe complications from Covid-19.

“Most recently we’ve seen some folks in the [intensive care unit] who are in the age groups of anywhere from 45 and 60, and I can definitely tell you these are unvaccinated individuals,” Khole said.

Younger people also make up a disproportionate number of newly reported cases in New Hampshire, he added.

“If you look at the current surge, almost one-third of the new cases are in younger age groups,” Khole said. “People between ages 12 and 35 dominate new cases right now. And a lot of this population has not been vaccinated by a single dose.”

In the last two weeks, for example, Maine has used an average of more than 230 beds per day for Covid patients, close to last winter’s peak daily average of about 240 beds. Vermont hospitals averaged 50 beds used per day over the last two weeks, nearing the state’s winter peak of 61.

New England is not the only part of the country where Covid case numbers are rising. The data compiled by NBC News showed that case counts are up in 29 states and U.S. territories.

Connecticut appears to have avoided a surge; case numbers there are down by 5 percent.

Khole said he is concerned about how the situation in New England will unfold in the coming weeks and months, including the kind of strain another devastating wave of infections could have on hospital resources and staffs. 

“Not only are your health care resources getting stretched yet again because of rising numbers of hospitalizations, but we’re also battling other issues, and nationwide everyone is going through a shortage of health care workers, burnout and resiliency issues,” he said. “How we’re going to fare through the winter is probably a concern in every health care worker’s mind right now.”