MONTPELIER – After a week that saw 90 Vermont Department of Health workers sign off on a letter urging the release of more detailed COVID-19 guidance, Vermont officials continue to resist calls to impose a statewide mask mandate regardless of vaccination status.
Dr. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said he aligns with such fundamental public health recommendations. But, he added, public health isn’t the only factor in making those decisions.
“We don’t operate in a vacuum,” Levine said. at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly briefing. “We are not the ones in total control of everything that happens during the pandemic. It’s a very collaborative and deliberative process.”
Scott maintained that current case data doesn’t justify another State of Emergency. He said the benefits of Vermont’s stellar vaccination rate seems to be getting lost in the shuffle.
“Vaccines are still changing the game,” Scott said. “We need people to keep stepping up to get their shot and to get the booster when the time comes.”
The state’s COVID-19 forecast anticipates that cases will plateau and fall over the next few weeks. But cases went up 22 percent this week, compared to 5 percent the previous week. The unvaccinated case rate has increased 40 percent in the last 14 days, while the vaccinated case rate has seen a 30 percent uptick.
Scott said the success of Vermont’s vaccine strategy shows up most when it comes to hospitalizations, because they’re largely preventing people from experiencing severe illness.
“Vermont continues to have the lowest hospitalization rate in the United States,” he said. “Again, if we had Florida’s hospitalization rates, we would have around 500 Vermonters hospitalized instead of 28. But it is not just Florida. If we had Connecticut’s hospitalization rate, for example, which has the 5th lowest rate in the nation, we would be talking about over 75 hospitalized instead of 28.”
Still, outbreaks in long-term care facilities and prisons have raised concerns as well. As of Tuesday, there were seven active outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Vermont, totaling 104 cases, including 80 residents.
Pressed on the health department employees’ push for mask mandate, Levine and Scott suggested the decision should rest on individual their risk factors, such as who they’re with and how crowded the room is.
“We should promote the use of masks during times when it’s necessary,” Scott said. “If you’re assessing your situation, taking some personal responsibility, going to a concert where there’s hundreds of people inside, you might want to wear a mask.”
“I’m asking Vermonters to use common sense and make informed choices,” Levine added. “Every person and every situation is unique.”
Current CDC recommendations call for indoor masking in areas with high or substantial transmission, which currently includes all Vermont counties. Scott took issue with the CDC’s policy, labeling it as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that doesn’t paint an accurate picture for a rural state like Vermont.
“Keep in mind these counties are in the same CDC category as counties in Florida with a per capita case rate that is 10 times higher than the highest case rate in Vermont,” Governor Scott said.
As schools get underway, Scott also picked up on a point made by several state officials last week regarding hostility at school board meetings over mask mandates.
“The school boards and superintendents who are implementing masking policies are simply doing what the State – at my direction – is recommending,” Scott said. “The attacks towards them are absolutely unacceptable, and if they want to blame someone, they can blame me.”