Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press briefing
Vermont officials on Tuesday expressed concern about the state's prolonged surge of COVID-19 infections and said people should consider wearing masks when visiting indoor public settings — a step that the officials themselves took for the first time in months during a weekly briefing.
But they maintained that there is still no need for new restrictions, again dismissing the idea of another mask mandate.
“If we make smart decisions in the coming weeks, and make an extra effort to protect the vulnerable, we can help reduce hospitalizations,” Gov. Phil Scott said, flanked by several masked members of his cabinet. “But it takes all of us committing to these smart, practical choices.”
It has been less than a week since Vermont reported a record-breaking 487 COVID-19 cases in a single day, 140 more than the previous record. The state has now reported 2,200 cases over the last seven days, bringing this week's average to 308, the highest it has ever been.
Unvaccinated people continue to drive much of the surge, posting a rate of infection 3.7 times higher than their vaccinated counterparts, state data shows. That includes children ages 5 to 11, who are catching COVID-19 at the highest rate of any age group right now — twice the rate of all adults — and who were recently made eligible for vaccination.
Officials said more than 14,000 children, about 30 percent of this age group, have been signed up for vaccination since registration began a week ago.
Officials also flagged a spike in the number of cases on college campuses, driven in large part by an outbreak at Saint Michael’s College. Seventy-seven students there have tested positive over the last week, a surge that comes after the college reported only 11 cases during the first two months of its fall semester.
College president Lorraine Sterrit blamed the outbreak on Halloween parties, where she said students were unmasked and in close contact. “To be in this situation after such a well-managed semester is heartbreaking,” Sterritt said in a letter to the college Friday. “It is imperative that everyone make wise choices.”
Case levels statewide are not expected to decrease for at least the next four weeks, according to the modeling projections. That means the surge will likely persist through Thanksgiving, raising concerns of another holiday-fueled spike.
State officials have said for months that their main priority is preventing the health care system from getting overrun. Scott sounded a note of caution on that front Tuesday, saying there have been recent days in which the state had only 10 available ICU beds.
That’s partly due to an increased number of COVID-19 patients; 55 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, including 16 in the ICU. But a far bigger share of the state’s ICU patients have been suffering from non-COVID-19 ailments, as people who delayed care during the pandemic are now arriving sicker.
Even a relatively minor spike in the number of COVID-19 patients requiring ICU care could place the system in jeopardy, Scott said, though he added that he doubts this will happen.
Seeking to explain why the state has yet to turn the corner on the Delta wave, Health Commissioner Mark Levine cited a mix of factors. Vermont is likely suffering from some of its own success, he said, explaining how the state’s unvaccinated population has less natural immunity than those in other states because of how well Vermonters prevented major outbreaks early on in the pandemic.
The state’s vaccinated population may also be losing some protection due to the waning efficacy of vaccines. Perhaps most notably, Vermonters have largely returned to life as normal.
“We are more mobile,” Levine said.“We're traveling and hosting visitors, doing things in-person and gathering more, especially indoors as the weather cools down. And — because we could for a while anyways, when case numbers dropped to single digits — we went back to masking less. So that is leaving people even more vulnerable to the virus right now.”
“The reality in Vermont has been deteriorating for some time and the data in recent weeks is dramatic,” read a letter sent to Scott on Monday by 44 Democratic and Progressive state lawmakers — about a fourth of the legislature.
Scott, who has repeatedly argued that a mask mandate would not work, maintained his position on Tuesday. The most frequent source of transmission continues to be small, private gatherings, he said, which is why it would be "naive" to think that people would follow a new mask mandate.
The state will instead continue focusing on getting more people vaccinated, he said. “We believe this strategy is the most effective way [to end the surge] without disrupting everything else in our lives."
Asked why he and his cabinet members decided to wear masks at Tuesday’s briefing, Scott replied, “Sometimes you have to practice what you preach, and it's as much symbolism as anything else. I just thought it was a good idea that we start to show that, during this time, we should be considering wearing masks in certain situations.”
Scott also addressed news that President Joe Biden’s administration will allow states to continue using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to cover the costs of some COVID-19 programs through at least April 1 instead of the previous December 31 deadline.
Vermont has used those funds to pay for an emergency motel program that has housed much of the state’s homeless population since the start of the pandemic. The Scott administration announced last month that it would continue the program through the end of the year, 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.
State officials, who have resisted reopening the program’s eligibility and extending it through the full winter, said Tuesday that it’s too soon to know what the administration’s announcement would mean for the program’s fate.
“We didn't know about the extension until just a moment ago,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at the press conference. “We'll be looking at it as we move forward.”
Advocates, meanwhile, seized on the news, including former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel, who has been camping on the Statehouse steps for nearly four weeks to demand that Scott expand eligibility for the program. In a statement on Tuesday, Siegel and Josh Lisenby, a Vermonter experiencing homelessness who has also participated in the outdoor protest, called on Scott to reverse his decision.
“Many years, we don’t have the opportunity to keep people safe, to help them find that path to stability,” they wrote. “But we do have that opportunity now. It is unique and we should not let it go to waste.”