People Are Dancing, Bars Are Full And Hospital Covid Units Are Mostly Empty. Health Officials Tout Green Mountain State As Safest In US.

People Are Dancing, Bars Are Full And Hospital Covid Units Are Mostly Empty. Health Officials Tout Green Mountain State As Safest In US.

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Burlington, Vermont (CNN)The sweaty Lindy Hoppers stood in a circle clapping to a hard-driving beat — switching partners and laughing on the ballroom floor of The Champlain Club in Vermont’s largest city.

They clasped hands and rock stepped and spun in and out of quick embraces to swinging jazz rhythms on one of the last hardwood ballrooms in Burlington.

“I thought partner dancing was always going to be the last thing to come back from the pandemic because there’s so much interaction,” said one dancer, Lorilee Schoenbeck, a naturopathic physician.

“It’s aerobic in each other’s faces and you’re constantly changing partners… In this dance venue, this would be an absolute super spreader.”

But these dancers are all vaccinated. They reside in America’s most vaccinated state — 83.7% of Vermonters 12 and over have received at least one shot, according to health officials.

Throughout Vermont, hospital Covid-19 units are mostly empty. Bars and restaurants are hopping again. In remote rural towns, diners, country stores and campgrounds are filling up.

As the national health crisis evolves into “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” in the words of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Vermont health officials tout the Green Mountain State as the safest place in America.

Many Vermonters are venturing out, unmasked and with no fear, just as the CDC recommended on Tuesday that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in US counties with soaring transmission rates.

“My question is, ‘Do you want to have a life again?'” Schoenbeck said. “We’re living. Get vaccinated. Get back in the game.”

Vaccination push continues

Around the corner from downtown Burlington’s bustling Church Street Marketplace, Dr. Mark Levine, state health commissioner, sat at a small conference table in his office and rattled off statistics that enabled Gov. Phil Scott to lift all Covid-19 restrictions in mid June.

Vermont was the first state to partially vaccinate at least 80 percent of residents 12 or older. The current rate of more than 83% compares with the nation’s 66.6% one-dose rate — according to the CDC — for the same age group.

More than 67% of the state’s roughly 624,000 residents have been fully vaccinated, compared with about 49% for the US overall.

The state has maintained one of the country’s lowest infection rates — currently at 1.6% for a seven-day average, according to the health department’s Covid-19 dashboard. Vermont has had 259 Covid-19 deaths.

“It’s the lowest number of deaths on the continental US,” said Levine, sitting in front of a bobblehead of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The state’s last Covid-19-related death was on July 10, Levine said. In June and July, the state has had four deaths. There are five Covid-19 patients hospitalized in the entire state.

Vermont’s first vaccine was administered in mid December. The state’s vaccination campaign isn’t done.

“The whole strategy is, we want a Vermonter to essentially stumble on the vaccine,” Levine said.

“If you’re at one of the beaches on Lake Champlain here in Burlington or you were … on Church Street, you’re not going to see a vaccine tent every day but you’re going to see it sometimes. That’s the sort of strategy. We’re going to make sure it’s all around you… If there’s a state fair, it’s got to have vaccine. If there’s a farmers’ market or a flea market, it’s going to have vaccine.”

Along Church Street Marketplace, visible from Levine’s downtown office, the wide four-block concourse is crowded with people — most not wearing masks. Its bars, shops and restaurants have been filling up. Outside Vermont’s own Ben & Jerry’s, dozens of young people — many not wearing face coverings or social distancing — line up in clusters for ice cream day and night.

The eastern shoreline of Lake Champlain, where signs with Covid-19 safety messages have been replaced with warnings of harmful cyanobacteria blooms in the water, teems with couples, children and pets. Burlington is in Chittenden County, which has a vaccination rate of 85.4%.

“We’re trying to tell people … fall and winter is what we’re worried about,” Levine said. “We want that vaccine rate up now in anticipation of the following winter so we don’t have to change our behavior at that time.”

Restrictions lifted ‘because it’s safe to do so’

On June 14, when Vermont became the first state to vaccinate more than 80% of its population over the age of 12, Gov. Scott, a moderate Republican, announced Vermont’s state of emergency would formally end at midnight.

“Why? Because it’s safe to do so,” the governor said.

At the same time, however, the Delta variant was starting to dominate the US.

A handful of states have been driving the bulk of the nationwide Covid-19 case surge and the threat of serious disease and death is to the unvaccinated, according to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients.

Last week, just three states — Florida, Texas and Missouri — that share low vaccination rates accounted for 40 percent of all cases nationwide, Zients said.

And hospitals are filling up with Covid-19 patients again, this time with younger patients than before, according to doctors in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Missouri.

The only way to halt the resurgence, health officials said, is to get more people vaccinated.

“Even if somebody comes into Vermont and has the Delta variant … and they get sick and they’re infectious while they’re here in Vermont,” Levine said.

“If 83-plus percent of the population is vaccinated. That variant runs into a wall. Now, people who’ve been vaccinated … can still get sick with the variant. We’ve seen that all around the country. But the reality is its likelihood of creating any major outbreak is really small because it’s going to keep running into people that it can’t actually get transmitted from because they are going to be immune.”

‘Community response and collective action’

At Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans, a community hospital about 28 miles northeast of Burlington, a staff member took a lunch break last week at the nurse’s station in the shuttered and dimly lit Covid-19 ward.

The hospital treated its last Covid-19 patient in early May, said Dr. John Minadeo, chief medical officer.

“It’s a sign of, at this point in time, your vaccination status in the community,” Minadeo said of the empty ward. “But I believe that’s why we don’t have patients in these beds… So this is evidence of — you’re in a vaccinated community, you’re not going to have hospitalizations.”

St. Albans is in Franklin County, where 73.7% of residents 12 or older have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the state health department.

Minadeo said the hospital was prepared to activate the ward if needed.

“We have to think the fall is coming and assume that, you know, it may happen again,” he said. “We’re in a little bit better shape because we’ve done it once before.”

Vermont’s success in vaccinating its residents is attributed to various factors, including the accessibility of vaccine sites; overall trust in the political leadership and science; an aging, mostly white and liberal populace; and a generally health conscious population with a strong sense of civic responsibility.

“A lot of people see Vermont as being exceptional in some ways,” said Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

“And it’s a really blue state but if you look a little bit closer … we’re a much more purple state than many understand. There are many rural barriers to health care and Vermont demonstrated that if you bring vaccines to places where people live, work and play that you can overcome many of the obstacles to achieving high rates of vaccination. Vermont not only used its health care system and large sites, but it’s also brought vaccines out to firehouses, schools, community sites, pop up clinics, gas stations and beaches.”

Sosin said rural Orleans County, in one of the most remote and conservative parts of the state, has a vaccination rate of 70.8%. She said she was vaccinated in an Orleans County firehouse.

Orleans is one of three far off Vermont counties — near the Canadian border — that make up a region known as the Northeast Kingdom, where residents take pride in their individuality and separateness.

“The high rates of vaccination are a testament not only to a really well run state program but to the vast community infrastructure in that part of the state,” Sosin said.

Another Northeast Kingdom county, Essex, has the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 58.5%. The other county, Caledonia, has partially vaccinated 70.8% of its 12 and over population.

“One really important lesson right now, as I think about what’s happening across the country, is the importance of community and solidarity,” Sosin said. “And I know that sounds kind of soft but we hear the CDC saying, ‘It’s in your hands.’ This is a very individualistic approach to the pandemic. Yet Vermonters really highlighted the importance of community response and collective action.”

‘A lot of older Vermonters … don’t like change’

At the Mooselook Diner in

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