Reporter Debrief: Gov. Scott Announces COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate For Some State Employees
Until today, Gov. Phil Scott had resisted calls to institute a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state workers. But after watching case counts rise due to the delta variant, Scott says he's decided to reverse course: He now says some state workers will have to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or face regular testing for the disease.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the new policy, and why the governor changed his mind. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So before we get to the governor's rationale behind this vaccine mandate, can you tell us who in state government this will apply to?
Peter Hirschfeld: Yeah, and this is definitely not an across-the-board mandate, Henry. As of now at least, this vaccine requirement will apply only to state workers at the Vermont Veteran's Home in Bennington, the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, and all employees at the Vermont Department of Corrections, which provides the staffing, of course, at the six prisons we have in Vermont.
The governor was asked today whether that mandate might apply to other public facing state employees as well; at the DMV, for instance. But Scott says that for now, at least, he doesn't have any plans to extend the mandate beyond those three groups of employees.
Got it. So states like California and New York have been mandating COVID vaccines for all state workers. But Scott pointedly said just two weeks ago that he was not going to take that same route. So what exactly changed here?
We saw a graph at today's press conference, charting the increase in cases that we've seen in Vermont over the past five weeks. And the governor said he's come to the conclusion that the highly transmissible nature of this delta variant is going to require a more interventionist public health approach for certain state-run facilities.
The veterans home, the psychiatric hospital, correctional facilities – these are all places where clients are in a mostly indoor setting, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And Scott says that makes these facilities more susceptible to transmission across the population of patients or inmates.
He said the state has a duty to do everything in its power to prevent that from happening. And he says in this instance, fulfilling that duty means taking steps to increase vaccination rates among staff.
And then on the employee side, how is the union that represents state employees responding to this announcement by Scott?
I spoke with Steve Howard, who's the executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association right after the governor's announcement. Howard told me the union only got a few hours’ notice that this was coming down the pike.
He said he hasn't had any time to get an official position from union membership on the vaccine mandate, but Steve Howard did not sound upset or alarmed about this. He said the Union and its members have been unequivocal about the value of vaccines, that they've been actively encouraging union members to get vaccinated.
Howard also said Vermont’s status as the only state not to have had an incarcerated individual die of COVID-19 is a testament to the dedication of corrections officers. And he said those state employees deserve a lot of credit for how comparatively well we've done in Vermont, in terms of rates of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19.
And finally, Pete, Vermont has seen COVID case counts rise pretty significantly over the past five weeks and there's growing concern about the danger that this poses to unvaccinated kids, especially, and fully vaccinated Vermonters who have underlying health conditions. But it sounds like public health officials think there may be some relief in sight. So why are they optimistic that case counts could begin to drop again?
Well, Henry, public health experts have spent a lot of time tracking delta's impact across populations where it's hit the hardest. And commissioner of financial regulation Mike Pieciak, who spearheads the administration's COVID modeling operation, said we've learned quite a bit about how delta works.
Here he is explaining one of the big takeaways from that research:
“India, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and also places here in the United States, including Missouri and Arkansas, where the Delta variant first landed, have all shown signs of rising for about seven, eight, nine weeks, and then reaching a peak and then declining as well.”
Mike Pieciak, commissioner of Financial Regulation
So it's been about five weeks, Henry, since delta landed in Vermont, and the immediate forecast does call for even higher case counts in the weeks ahead. By the middle of September, if our experience tracks with other regions at least, Pieciak says we should see case counts drop pretty significantly. And I'm sure there are a lot of parents and school staff out there that are hoping that prediction bears out.