A diverse group of Vermont policymakers and professionals want Gov. Phil Scott to declare another state of emergency so that he can take stronger action against the coronavirus.
The group issued its plea during a press conference at the Statehouse on Monday that featured comments from Democratic and Progressive lawmakers, health policy researchers, school nurses and parents of young children.
They argued that the Scott administration's departure from proven mitigation measures has allowed the highly infectious Delta variant to run rampant through the state, disrupting schools and pushing case counts to unprecedented heights.
“While these numbers keep soaring, the administration keeps doing nothing,” said Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P-Essex), a school social worker, noting that Vermont at one point this month was reporting the largest increase in the country in cases over the previous 14 days. “This points to the need for swift and decisive action. Doing what we are doing is clearly not working.”
Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), a practicing physician, agreed. “It’s completely inexplicable to see the lack of action from the administration at this point,” he said. “It’s as if they’ve fallen asleep at the wheel."
Speakers called on Scott to use the broad executive powers afforded to him under a state of emergency to reinstate an indoor mask mandate, hire more contract tracers and increase health care and social work staff in schools.
They also pushed to expand the motel voucher program, which has been housing many of Vermont’s homeless population since the pandemic began. The Scott administration announced last week that it would continue the program through the end of the year while it pursued longer-term housing solutions, but the extension applied only to those currently enrolled — not the roughly 1,000 who lost access to the state-funded motel rooms this summer.
Vermont is facing its worst COVID-19 surge to date. The state has averaged more than 200 infections a day for the last three weeks, while the number of hospitalizations and deaths have crept up to levels not seen since last winter. As of Monday, Vermont was one of only seven states in the country reporting a rising number of cases over the previous 14 days.
Schools, meanwhile, have reported 978 cases of student and staff infections during the first eight weeks of classes. By contrast, 1,402 cases were reported during the entire 2020-21 academic year.
Scott, who allowed his state of emergency order to expire in mid-June, has resisted a return to the days of restrictions despite the surge, insisting that the best way to protect people is through vaccinations, not mandates.
When Democratic legislative leaders called on him in late August to do more as infection rates climbed, he wrote off their concerns as “playing politics” and said there was no reason for him to declare another state of emergency.
And as case counts reached their highest point of the pandemic this month, he dismissed the notion of another mask mandate, saying he did not think it would “get one single person to wear a mask that doesn't want to wear a mask.”
He instead called on Vermonters to exercise “personal responsibility,” saying last week that it was the key to slowing the surge.
Those assembled at the Statehouse on Monday took exception with such comments. They noted that children 9 and younger — for whom a vaccine has yet to be approved — have been infected at a higher rate than any other group during the Delta surge, and they said the state’s current school mitigation strategies pale in comparison to those in place last year.
“When we call this the pandemic of unvaccinated, we're largely talking about children,” said Kelly Adams, an Essex Junction social worker and mother of two. “Children who gave up any semblance of a normal year last year because they were asked to protect their elders. Now, we're not doing even the most basic things to prevent spread while they await vaccination.”
Scott's spokesperson Jason Maulucci responded to the group's concerns in an email to Seven Days on Monday.
Regarding the housing program, he wrote that the eligibility criteria was developed with the support of lawmakers and still remains far more expensive than it was pre-pandemic.
“But the real solution is to transition those in the program into permanent housing,” he wrote. The administration released a plan last week that officials said would help facilitate that transition, and Scott urged the legislators to take up the various proposals early next year.
As for his boss' handling of the COVID-19 surge, Maulucci said Vermont’s nation-leading vaccination effort has allowed it to weather the Delta wave with one of the lowest death and hospitalization rates in the country.
“If the Governor believed state mandates were needed, he would implement them,” Maulucci wrote. “But the fact is, declaring a state of emergency after nearly 20 months of experience with this virus and reimposing broad restrictions and closures is not something Vermonters would accept nor follow.”
Instead of mandates, Scott will continue to encourage people to get vaccinated, make smart choices and take steps to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, Maulucci wrote. “But he is not going to force them backwards.”