Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday that he recommends all Vermonters, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors. But he couched that statement by urging people "to use common sense to make informed choices."
He noted that he was speaking unmasked in a large auditorium with fewer than 20 people and colleagues who had been vaccinated.
“Like we’ve been saying all along, you should assess your own risk,” Levine said. “The room is spacious and well ventilated. Very different than if I was giving a talk here, attended by the general public, and it was a full house.”
In general, the administration has tried to step back from overarching mandates and instead is asking Vermonters to rely on personal decision-making. Some parents and other members of the public are pushing officials to follow the lead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that masks be worn indoors by all people at all times when substantial and high infection rates are reported in a community. All Vermont counties have crossed that threshold.
Officials are inching toward a few more safety requirements for state employees, with a mandate that starts Wednesday for Department of Corrections workers. Gov. Phil Scott said he might follow up with similar rules for other state employees.
Vermont officials are taking a hiding from the public — and from their own workers, in some cases — about their response to the recent case surge. COVID-19 infections have risen throughout the country in recent weeks, with 104 new cases reported in the state just on Tuesday. A recent high of 189 cases was reported on Saturday.
There were 174 more cases reported this week than last, according to the state Department of Financial Regulation, which is tracking COVID-19 trends. That’s a sharp turnaround from earlier this summer, when case numbers dropped 84 percent from May to June.
In June, there were 26 days of single-digit new cases reported, leading state officials to encourage Vermonters to get out and enjoy socializing. Scott dropped all pandemic restrictions at that time and allowed a state of emergency to expire.
Officials still want people to go out, while keeping in mind their COVID-19 infection risk. The state is also issuing constant reminders to get vaccinated and encouraging people to steer unvaccinated friends and family members in that direction. Officials see vaccination as the best means of keeping cases in check.
But some Vermonters are calling for the administration to impose mask mandates, not advisories. Scott acknowledged this Tuesday when he noted that Vermont is still No. 1 in the country for several COVID-related metrics.
“Despite what you might see on Twitter, we are in a much better place than perhaps any other state,” he said, crediting Vermont’s high vaccination rate.
As of Tuesday, 86.1 percent of eligible Vermonters had received at least one dose of vaccine. After a long run at the top of that category, Vermont was recently knocked off by Hawaii, which has hit 86.2 percent.
“The bottom line is, whatever we do to reduce transmission now will help reduce the amount of virus in our communities,” Levine said.
Scott also noted that starting Wednesday, about 1,000 people who work for the Department of Corrections will be required to attest they have been vaccinated or wear a mask and submit to weekly testing. Vaccines will also be required for workers at the Vermont Veterans’ Home and state psychiatric hospital. Scott said he’s considering that mandate for other state workers, though he didn’t elaborate.
Infection rates vary widely around the state. Chittenden County, with the largest population by far, had an average daily case count of 40 in August, administration officials reported. Essex County had fewer than one, and Franklin County had seven. Washington County was an outlier, with an average of 17.4 cases per day.
Washington County had cases reported at two schools this week, in East Montpelier and Plainfield, but Levine said those situations did not account for the high number of cases in the county. He said he did not have an explanation for the numbers.
Statewide, officials said they expect cases to plateau and then fall in the next two to three weeks.
With booster shots on the horizon starting as early as next month, Levine said that eventually, the virus will be endemic — always present but controlled with vaccines.
“It's going to settle out in a place where we have to sort of just live with it, like we live with the common cold,” Levine said. “It just sort of keeps existing at a level where we see a number of cases per year, we see a number of hospitalizations, a number of deaths. But they become sort of part of the fabric of our human existence.”
While Scott is adamant about advising versus mandating, he did note that every school district but one — in Canaan — was following the administration’s advice on masks, without a requirement. In order to mandate mask-wearing, Scott would have to reinstate a state of emergency, something he’s not willing to do.
“The sooner we all pick up our game, so to speak, and put into place policies and procedures that will help mitigate this, the better off we're going to be," Scott said.