Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday repeated his often-stated opposition to a statewide mask mandate, even as he opened the door to new local rules.
The governor has been under pressure from Democratic lawmakers to require masks indoors as case counts climb to pandemic highs.
Scott said he would extend an "olive branch" by allowing the legislature to reconvene for a special session next week so that lawmakers can give municipalities the authority to issue mask mandates.
To keep the measures in effect, municipal boards would have to revote on them every 30 days; they could not extend past April 30, 2022. The proposal mirrors one suggested by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns last week. If legislators try to pass any other legislation, Scott said, he would veto it.
In a joint statement Monday night, House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and Senate President Pro Term Becca Balint (D-Windham) said that the governor should take more sweeping steps to mitigate the virus’ spread. Last week, both lawmakers called on Scott to reimplement a statewide mask mandate.
"While we appreciate this step toward giving Vermonters more tools to promote public health," the leaders' statement read, "we are deeply disappointed that there is not a broader approach to keeping Vermonters safe and our health care system afloat."
In his weekly data report, Finance Commissioner Mike Piecak said that case numbers continue to rise. They increased 16 percent over the last week and 64 percent over the last two weeks. The testing positivity rate is 4.3 percent, with Essex, Orleans and Rutland counties reporting the highest case rates this week. According to New York Times data, Vermont currently is tied with Wisconsin for the sixth highest rate of COVID-19 in the country, with 57 cases per 100,000 people.
There’s some good news: The rate for those 65 and older has dropped 2 percent, Piecak said. Another positive data point: The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has stayed flat over the last 30 days, which Piecak said indicates that older people are benefiting from booster shots. Fifty-five percent of Vermonters 65 and older have received a booster.
Though Thanksgiving gatherings didn't appear to affect case counts last year, people had been advised not to travel or gather in large groups. Piecak said there is still uncertainty about how this year's holiday would affect the state's COVID numbers.
To that end, Health Commissioner Mark Levine shared recommendations for how to celebrate the holiday safely. They included keeping gatherings small and taking several rapid antigen tests in the lead-up to the holiday, or a PCR test no later than Monday to ensure the results will come back by Thanksgiving. Levine also said it's wise to get tested for COVID-19 five to seven days after the holiday — regardless of symptoms or vaccination status.
The health commissioner recommended having "the talk" with Thanksgiving guests about their vaccination status before gathering.
"The more people who are vaccinated around your table, the safer everyone will be," he said.
Levine also outlined a recent change in the state's contact tracing protocols, which he said is necessary because of the state's high case counts and the quick-spreading Delta variant. Vermont currently has 150 full-time contact tracers, but they are focusing their efforts on outbreaks among vulnerable populations, such as those living in congregate settings. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, Levine said, he or she should begin isolating immediately and reach out to close contacts rather than waiting for the Health Department to do so.
Education Secretary Dan French said about half of the state's school districts have signed up or are implementing Test to Stay programs, which allow students who are close contacts to stay in school rather than quarantine by taking daily rapid antigen tests. Such strategies “are only going to go so far if we do not achieve higher rates of vaccination in our communities, particularly among school children," French said. Schools with higher vaccination rates will experience more stability, less quarantining and fewer canceled activities going into the winter, he added.
"I expect ultimately we will see intermittent school closures among schools with relatively low student vaccination rates as a result of staffing issues," French said.
According to Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Mike Smith, more than 36 percent of all Vermont children ages 5 to 11 have either received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine or are registered for one.