Health Department Employees Criticize Scott, Levine for COVID-19 Response | Off Message

Health Department Employees Criticize Scott, Levine for COVID-19 Response


Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in the spring - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press conference in the spring
Updated at 6:21 p.m.

Vermont health officials received a rare rebuke from their own staff Thursday for failing to do enough to combat the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

The critique by 91 rank-and-file members of the Health Department follows similar pressure by lawmakers for Gov. Phil Scott to do more to address the surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state.

The extraordinary letter to Health Commissioner Mark Levine and his leadership team expressed “deep concern” with the “lack of adequate COVID-19 prevention guidance.”

“Our current guidance is not doing all that it should to protect Vermonters and save lives,” the staffers wrote to  Levine, deputy commissioner Kelly Dougherty and state epidemiologist Dr. Patsy Kelso. first reported the story.

The staffers highlighted that the current infection rate was highest among children ages 6 to 11, who are ineligible for vaccination and most of whom are heading back to school this week.

These children risk becoming infected by contact with vaccinated family members, teachers and friends who believe that their vaccinations prevent them from contracting and spreading COVID-19, the staffers wrote.

In fact, four out of 10 Vermonters who are testing positive for COVID-19 are vaccinated, the staffers noted, suggesting the problem of so-called “breakthrough” cases is greater than the public understands.

“It is our belief that our current public guidance, which encourages only unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask and makes no mention of the risk of COVID-19 among unmasked vaccinated individuals, is not based on our best understanding of the way the Delta variant is spreading,” staffers wrote.

They urged Levine to take several additional steps. These include recommending mask wearing in all indoor public spaces, and requiring people be tested and to quarantine if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status.

They also urged Levine to recommend testing before and after large social gatherings, issue recommendations that discourage people from traveling to areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates, and encourage people to get tested before and after out-of-state travel.

Nine counties in Vermont were listed Thursday by the CDC as having high transmission rates, and rates in the other five were “substantial.”

In an email to staff Thursday afternoon, Levine lauded their hard work during the pandemic and commitment to collecting and analyzing the data needed for making good decisions. While that data is “always heard and considered” by state leaders, he reminded them of the complexity of public health decisions.

“As a department, we have to recognize that in a global pandemic, public health recommendations are a significant factor, but not the sole factor in the state’s policy decisions,” Levine wrote. “Our recommendations are weighed alongside many other aspects that have statewide implications, including areas such as mental health, substance misuse, economic security, overall public confidence, and commitment to mitigation measures and more.”

While such decisions “are often not easy,” the process of reaching them is “disciplined and thorough,” Levine wrote.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, issued a statement praising the work of the employees in helping craft the decisions “that have helped make Vermont the safest state — with among the lowest hospitalization, case and fatality rates — in the nation."

“The Governor’s decision-making process does — and will always — include the input and perspectives of the employees in the letter,” the statement reads. Their perspectives have been “the most cautious” and “greatly valued” by Scott and his team.

“If they feel unheard, that is an issue we can address internally,” the statement notes. It also says that Scott “has always shown a willingness to change strategies to keep Vermont moving forward,” and “none of the recommendations presented in the letter are, or ever have been, off the table."

During his Tuesday press conference, Scott did note that if the rate of infections did not drop off soon, as predicted, he would consider additional measures. He justified not instituting additional measures by saying the transmission rate was not high enough to warrant them and issuing another state of emergency was unnecessary.

At that point, the state reported 106 new cases. Wednesday the number increased to 128. Thursday it swelled to 141.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) both pressed Scott to take further steps to protect Vermonters, including raising the prospect of a temporary indoor mask mandate. Scott dismissed their remarks as "playing politics."

The number of states reinstituting mask mandates is on the rise as the Delta variant of COVID-19 is proving more transmissible. On her first day in office Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a universal mask mandate for schools, and Thursday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide indoor mask mandate.

Closer to home, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger earlier this month recommended people mask up in indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status and is planning to talk to businesses about a citywide mask mandate.  The Brattleboro Selectboard recently passed a resolution to impose a townwide mandate there but has been unable to secure approval from the Scott administration to implement it absent a statewide emergency declaration.

On Thursday afternoon, Scott formally rejected Brattleboro's request. The municipality has a COVID-19 case rate of only 0.2 percent, and no infected patients are currently admitted to the two hospitals in the community, deputy chief of staff Brittney Wilson wrote to town manager Peter Elwell in an email.

"Though variants have required continued monitoring and management," she wrote, "at this time the data does not justify a state of emergency."

Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.

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