MONTPELIER, Vt. — State officials say they are changing how contact tracing and testing is done in schools because of how quickly the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s regular news conference Tuesday, the state presented data showing Vermont has averaged 1,607 cases over the last seven days. The seven-day average for cases has increased 69 percent during that time and 245 percent over the last 14 days.

It’s unclear just how many new cases there have been on a given day recently because Jenney Samuelson, interim secretary of the Agency of Human Services, reported a “technical glitch” was discovered over the weekend that had been causing delays in the reporting of test results. Samuelson said this glitch resulted in a four- or five-day delay in results for a little more than 8,200 tests in the state. Results from a PCR test from a state testing site typically take two to three days to receive.

Samuelson said the issue has been resolved and apologized for any issues it may have caused. She said anyone who has had a delayed test result should expect to receive the result by the end of Tuesday.

She said the state is still working on results from 40,000 tests taken between Jan. 7 and Jan. 10. Samuelson said there were about 4,375 positive results in those tests and state officials were working on assigning cases to the day they should have normally been reported. The state’s case dashboard, which is typically updated daily, has not been updated since Sunday.

Even with the increase in cases, and as many as 90 people reported hospitalized with the virus as of Sunday, officials reported there has not been a corresponding increase in usage for intensive-care beds.

There have been seven deaths from the virus this month as of Jan. 11. This follows 62 deaths in December, the second deadliest month of the pandemic since 71 deaths were reported in December 2020.

Officials said cases are expected to keep increasing until the end of January where they should plateau and start to decrease at the beginning of February.

On Friday night, the state Agency of Education notified schools of an upcoming change in testing and contact tracing guidance. Officials discussed the change in more detail Tuesday.

Instead of school officials conducting testing at the start of the school day for close contacts of students with the virus using rapid antigen tests, that task will now fall to parents who can obtain tests from the school so they can test their kids prior to leaving the house.

Contact tracing would no longer be the school’s responsibility, either. Under this new guidance, if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus, the school would inform parents of that student’s classmates or the staff member’s class. Schools have been told to no longer conduct PCR surveillance testing because officials said while that type of test is more accurate than an at-home test, the results take too long for the test to be helpful because of how quickly omicron spreads.

Education Secretary Dan French said these changes were made, with the backing of health experts, because of an ongoing concern his agency has had in regards to being able to conduct contact tracing and testing given school staffing levels. French said the “Test to Stay” program, where students who were close contacts of a positive case could take antigen tests and stay in school if the test was negative, was successful in dealing with the delta variant, but it became clear quickly after the holidays that a different strategy would be needed for omicron.

“Since omicron was spreading so much faster and our processes and contact tracing and test to stay had difficulty keeping up,” French said.

He said the operational strain of continuing the programs, along with their reduced effectiveness due to omicron, led to the decision to shift how testing and contact tracing in schools would be done.

French said this change has been characterized as “abrupt,” and that is fair to a certain extent.

“Omicron is forcing us to move quicker than we otherwise would have wanted, but as I mentioned both from an operational perspective and a public health perspective, we concluded we needed to make a shift and we needed to make that change sooner rather than later,” he said.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

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