Vermont’s in an unusual position this month: While COVID-19 case numbers are falling nationally, they’re still rising in Vermont — a reversal after more than a year of better-than-average outcomes for the Green Mountain State.
Vermont's seven-day average case rate has increased 27 percent since the start of the Labor Day weekend. Cases have risen more quickly among people who are not fully vaccinated.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly news conference Tuesday, state officials outlined the measures they hope to put in place as part of a long-term response to the pandemic. Officials said that Vermont is one of 26 states that have approved OSHA state plans to expand a federal vaccine mandate for large businesses to include public employees, including school districts.
That mandate would be part of a federal rule that will take weeks to draft, said Education Secretary Dan French. Whatever the outcome, “vaccination will continue to play a central role to ensure schools will remain open," French said.
Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, estimated that around 26,000 people work in Vermont schools.
The drug company Pfizer announced Monday that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination has been shown to protect children ages 5 to 11 against the virus. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves, public health officials said, the vaccine might be available to kids by the end of October. No COVID-19 vaccine is yet available to kids under 12.
When the vaccine is approved, the state will set up clinics and information sessions to get kids inoculated, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
“The pediatrician community will be part of this, as well as family practitioners and school-based clinics which we are already operating,” he said.
Because the state of emergency has expired, the Scott administration can only advise the school districts, not issue orders. The Agency of Education has said every school district but one is following its guidance regarding mask-wearing.
That district is Canaan, in the far northeastern corner of the state. Half of its students live in New Hampshire. French said Tuesday he had spoken to school officials there recently and plans to visit in the next few weeks.
“They have the added difficulty of having to work under two states, from a cultural standpoint,” said French.
Mike Pieciak, the Department of Financial Regulation chief who handles COVID modeling for the state, has said Vermont and the Northeast might be lagging behind the rest of the country in seeing case rates go down because they have a higher vaccination rate. In states with a lower rate, the Delta variant of the virus likely moved more quickly through the population, he said.
Levine on Tuesday predicted that COVID-19 will be "endemic" in three to six months. That means the virus will be common in the population but suppressed by the vaccine, producing annoying symptoms, Levine said, not spikes that clog hospitals.
“COVID would not be gone, but our immune systems would recognize it so the worst outcomes could be avoided,” said Levine. But “we still need many more people vaccinated, including children, and perhaps boosters, before we are at a place where we live with COVID without seeing concerted spikes of hospitalizations and deaths."
Scott said that he will extend by 30 days the state’s hotel voucher program for the homeless, which had been due to end September 23.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) thanked Scott and said the deadline would give advocates and the state Department for Children and Families more time to find housing for about 540 families who will be affected. The deadline should be extended again if needed, Krowinski said.
“We know that we have the funds to support this population,” she said in a prepared statement.
Rental housing in Vermont is in short supply, making it difficult for people to move out of the motels into apartments.
“We’ll continue to monitor the situation,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Tuesday. “We’re going to be very creative to make sure everyone has a place, and work hard to ensure that we’re still connecting folks to services, which is critical.”