Vermont will require anyone who works for the governor’s office or state agencies to attest that they are vaccinated starting on September 15, Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday.
Workers who don’t will be required to wear masks on the job, and will have to undergo a COVID-19 test every week, Scott said at his regular weekly press conference. The order covers about 8,000 state government employees, excluding those who work for the legislature and the judiciary.
There are signs that Vermont’s COVID case rate, which started rising in July, may have hit a peak. The rate among vaccinated people rose just 1 percent in the last seven days, officials said. The case rate among unvaccinated people rose 11 percent, according to the state Department of Health.
“We feel it’s the best way to put this pandemic behind us,” Scott said of requiring vaccinations. “I continue to urge other employers to follow suit.”
The move was expected, said Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees' Association. Scott in mid-August issued a similar mandate for people who work in Vermont’s prisons, psychiatric hospitals and in the state veterans' home. But Howard said in order to keep state employees safe, members of the public who enter state office buildings should be required to wear masks and show they’re vaccinated.
“It’s not just the employees who are in these buildings,” he said.
COVID has killed 282 Vermonters since March 2020. Thirty-two people were hospitalized with the virus Wednesday, seven of them in intensive care.
Officials announced Wednesday that they are amending guidance for schools. To encourage students to get vaccinated, the state initially issued a recommendation that all students remain masked until 80 percent of eligible students were fully vaccinated. After that, only students under the age of 12 — who are not yet eligible for vaccines — would have to wear masks.
That guidance is voluntary, yet only one school district has chosen not to follow it, according to state officials. The town of Canaan voted in late August against a mask mandate.
Some parents and administrators have been pushing Scott to require masks in school. He has stayed firm on a refusal to renew the state of emergency needed for that requirement. But on Wednesday, he announced the state will now advise schools to require masks of all students and staff, regardless of their vaccination status, until October 4.
“We will continue to adjust our recommendations based on conditions for the virus in our schools and our communities,” said Education Secretary Dan French. He noted that 80,000 students started school in September; 81 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among students.
“I can’t help but reflect and draw a comparison from where we were last year,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge we have 80,000 students in person right now in schools.”
About 77 percent Vermonters eligible for vaccinations — 440,000 people — have completed the shots, a rate that puts the state near the top nationwide. On Wednesday, the administration announced it will set aside $2 million in grant money for schools with higher vaccination rates.
Schools can apply, with student input, when they reach certain benchmarks. Grants will focus on priority areas such as academic, social and emotional support and recovery, said French.
The proposal was immediately lambasted on social media as a giveaway for more affluent, liberal schools.
“Wouldn’t schools with the lowest rates require more assistance?” tweeted one critic.
Next up are booster shots, which could be available as early as this month. They’ll be administered to Vermonters on the same schedule the first shots were, starting last December: Health care workers will get them first, followed by people at long-term care facilities. After that, older Vermonters will get in line. The booster shots are available already for people who have health conditions that compromise their immunity.
There are still many details to be worked out with the booster shots, cautioned Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. It’s not yet clear what shots will be recommended for people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for example.
“I encourage your patience for the next 10 days,” he said. “By then we’ll have answers for some of these questions.”