Reporter Debrief: What Does The Latest News About The Delta Variant Mean For Vermont?
Vermont continues to lead the nation when it comes to the percentage of eligible residents who've been vaccinated against COVID-19. That's protected the state from the spike in coronavirus cases that other regions of the country are experiencing right now.
But new cases of COVID-19 are creeping up in Vermont, even among people who've been fully vaccinated against the disease. Gov. Phil Scott and his team held a press briefing Tuesday to talk about the situation. So what comes next?
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the press briefing and news about breakthrough COVID-19 cases. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So daily case counts have been on the rise for three straight weeks now in Vermont. How worried should we be about the state seeing the kind of surge that places like Florida and Missouri and Texas are experiencing?
Peter Hirschfeld: Not very, Henry, according to Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, at least. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently called this latest surge in the U.S. a, quote, “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and Levine says Fauci is spot on with that assessment.
Levine says the fact that 83.6% of eligible Vermonters have now received at least one dose of the vaccine will insulate us from the kind of wild spikes in case counts that other less vaccinated states have seen of late. But case counts are on the rise in Vermont, and not just compared with our low case counts earlier this summer.
I was going through some data at the Department of Health earlier today, and saw a stat that really caught my eye. Over the last seven days, Henry, Vermont has reported 141 new cases of COVID-19. Over that same one-week time period last summer, when the vaccination rate was zero, mind you, we had only 40 new cases reported.
And these new cases that we’re seeing, Henry, do include people who've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Five fully vaccinated people a day, on average, have contracted COVID-19 in Vermont over the past two weeks.
If you're fully vaccinated, you're far, far less likely to experience severe outcomes from COVID. But so far in Vermont, five fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 and one fully vaccinated person has died, according to Dr. Levine.
Wow. Well, it's been about a month-and-a-half since Gov. Scott lifted the state of emergency in Vermont and also rescinded executive orders that mandated things like mask wearing and distancing requirements, which we all got so familiar with. Is he considering reinstating any of those kinds of rules in light of the rising case counts?
Reporters asked Phil Scott and Mark Levine exactly that question and today and the answer was emphatically “No.” They both said Vermont's situation isn't close to warranting that kind of intervention. Even with the surge in other states, Henry, Phil Scott said he isn't considering the reintroduction of travel restrictions on people coming into Vermont from places with high rates of transmission.
The CDC today is expected to unveil new guidance that reinstates the recommendation for mask wearing indoors, even among fully vaccinated individuals. But that new guidance only applies to places with high COVID transmission rates. And Levine says Vermont does not fall into that category and that the mask recommendation is not necessary, in his view, in Vermont.
What Scott and Levine are pressing for is for unvaccinated Vermonters to get vaccinated. That's really the singular focus these days of their COVID-19 communication strategy. And they say vaccines and vaccines alone are really the only thing that's going to protect Vermonters against this highly transmissible delta variant.
Finally, Pete looking ahead to the school year, the CDC is recommending a mask mandate for unvaccinated students when K-12 schools return to in-person instruction in the fall. Do we know yet whether Vermont students will be required to wear masks when they head back to the classroom?
We don't know that as of now, but Health Commissioner Mark Levine says we'll be finding out what's in store for Vermont schools next week. Levine and Education Secretary Dan French have previously said the question of whether or not schools will have a mask mandate this fall is going to be a function of where we're at in terms of suppressing transmission of the virus.
They haven't indicated what levels of community spread would spur a masked mandate in schools but we'll find out next Tuesday whether they think it's going to be safe to let kids gather unmasked in classrooms.