A recent surge of COVID-19 infections has placed Chittenden County under new federal recommendations that encourage vaccinated people to resume wearing masks in public indoor spaces.
But with rates of hospitalization and deaths still low in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott has no plans to reinstate the statewide masking order that remained in place throughout last fall, winter and spring, according to spokesperson Jason Maulucci. Four people were hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday, while two deaths were reported in July.
"If you are fully vaccinated, we believe you are substantially protected, and people shouldn't feel the need to wear [a mask] if they don't want to," Maulucci told Seven Days. "You should feel confident in the efficacy of the vaccines and safe to do things that you did prior to the pandemic."
Scott's stay-the-course stance contrasts with new recommendations out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which announced last week that even fully vaccinated people should mask up when visiting indoor public settings in parts of the country where levels of COVID-19 spread is "substantial," defined as at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people over the last week.
Two Vermont counties are now over the threshold, according to CDC data. Chittenden County, the state's most populous, has now reported 99 cases over the last week, equaling a rate of roughly 60 infections per 100,000 people. Essex County has also been deemed to have a "substantial" spread, though the county's low population may be playing a role: It has reported too few cases over the last week to show up on the CDC dashboard, and health department data shows only three cases there in the last seven days.
The CDC's latest recommendation marks a regression in the country's fight against the virus after a summer lull gave rise to hopes that the pandemic might finally be on its last leg. It also sent state and local governments scrambling to decide whether they would ignore the new guidance or issue mandates to match it.
Mayor Miro Weinberger, who had pushed to rescind the city's masking order sooner but was overruled, planned to meet with city staff and members of the health department Monday afternoon to discuss the CDC recommendations, according to his spokesperson, Samantha Sheehan.
Later Monday, Weinberger said in a statement that he would not change masking guidance for city employees or members of the public. He did say his administration is considering vaccination and testing requirements for city employees, "and I expect to make a decision on that this week after consulting our union leadership."
"Vaccination is by far the most important Covid intervention we have," the mayor said in a written statement. "The Delta variant should be a wakeup call for anyone who is eligible and still unvaccinated. It is dangerous to wait."
On the state level, meanwhile, new restrictions appear unlikely, even as officials say they expect case counts to continue to rise in the coming weeks as the highly-contagious Delta variant surges across the country.
More than 77,000 cases have been reported on average daily over the last week, up 150 percent from just two weeks ago, the New York Times reports. A similar trend has taken hold in Vermont: The state has reported a combined 148 cases over the last three days, including 70 on Saturday, which was the highest single-day total since mid-May.
But as hospitalizations are also rising nationwide, Vermont's have held firm — a testament to the efficacy of vaccines, state officials said at a press conference last week. Pointing to Vermont's nation-leading vaccination rate of 84 percent, they assured that the the state won't be hit as hard as others.
“There’s not a reason for us to take an alarmist kind of stance and make any major changes,” Scott said on July 27. “I went to a number of parades this year, and there were a lot of people there as well … We’re almost back to normal.”
Maulucci reiterated that stance Monday, saying that a new statewide mask mandate in light of the low hospitalization numbers would be a "drastic step," especially because it would require Scott to reinstate his now-lapsed state-of-emergency order. Maulucci added that while the pandemic has repeatedly shown how quickly conditions can change, a new mandate is not being discussed at this time.