Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, right, receives a vaccine booster shot Thursday in Newport, Vermont. Credit: Wilson Ring / AP

NEWPORT, Vermont — Vermont Gov. Phil Scott rolled up his sleeve and got a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot Thursday in the region of the state that is being hardest hit by the virus.

Answering questions outside the North Country Hospital in Newport, Scott and other members of his administration said they wanted to make it as easy as possible to answer questions from locals about the virus and to make it as easy for them as possible to get the shot.

“As you know as well, Orleans County has been hit hard over the last few weeks and getting vaccinated, we believe, is the best tool we have to put this pandemic behind us,” Scott said during a news conference in the hospital parking lot before getting his booster.

For weeks Orleans County, with a population of about 27,000 in north-central Vermont along the Canadian border, has been leading the state and the region with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, Vermont reported a total of 316 new cases of the virus, with 23 percent of those in Orleans County, which has about 4 percent of the state’s population, Scott said.

And about a quarter of the population of Orleans County is over age 65, the ages most vulnerable to the virus. State statistics show that about 76.7 percent of eligible Orleans County residents have started vaccination for COVID-19, the third-lowest among Vermont’s 14 counties.

The high number of cases in northeastern Vermont follow into northern New Hampshire and parts of northern Maine, although the Orleans County infection rate leads all those other locations.

“This isn’t meant to shame anyone,”‘ Scott said. “This is really meant to inform people as to what’s happening throughout our state and throughout our country.”

The state is increasing vaccination opportunities in the region.

Vince Illuzzi, a Derby lawyer who represented Orleans County for years in the state Senate, said that the region was fiercely independent and that people needed to hear from local leaders rather than state officials from far away.

“A lot of the apprehension comes from the noise and the chatter at the national level that is distorting the message,” Illuzzi said. “And that is what can be clarified if you have local leadership advocating the vaccinations.”

State Rep. Michael Marcotte, a Republican who represents a portion of Orleans County, said he believes a lot of people in the area who followed the guidance during the early months of the pandemic were tired of it and they were unaware of how bad the COVID-19 situation is in the area.

“We’re just hoping that people will start looking at the data and looking at the science and start getting their vaccines,” Marcotte said Thursday.

North Country Hospital pediatrician Dr. Alexandra Bannach said she felt many people had hoped the virus would be temporary and it would go away.

“The virus clearly is not going away. If anything it has gotten stronger and more infectious and the disease more severe as time goes on,” she said. “So that strategy unfortunately did not work. So if that was what you were hoping for, please change your mind and go get the vaccine right now.”

Story by Wilson Ring.