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Health Care Professionals To Gov. Scott: Do More To Slow The Spread Of COVID

A blackboard with chalk reading covid's back be safe
Elodie Reed
VPR File
As the delta variant brings higher case counts to the state, prominent health care professionals have begun to question whether Gov. Phil Scott is doing enough to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Scott administration is now recommending that even fully vaccinated Vermonters mask indoors in counties with high rates of coronavirus transmission, but hundreds of health care professionals say the new guidance isn’t enough to curb the spread of the delta variant.

Earlier this week, in a letter to Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, more than 70 women working in health care organizations across Vermont urged Scott to “mandate safety measures for our school-aged children” and “impose a mask mandate in this state.”

“It feels as though we are failing the children of Vermont with our light-handed approach to their safety. It feels as though a year has passed and we have forgotten everything we learned in 2020,” the letter said. “We fear that the highly transmissible delta variant is going to spread quickly through communities who are not aggressively managing mitigation measures.”

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Dr. Beth Wagner, a hospitalist at Central Vermont Medical Center, said in an interview with VPR that high rates of COVID transmission in communities could lead to outbreaks in local schools.

She said that that makes indoor mask mandates in all public settings a key component of any successful COVID mitigation strategy.

“I think what we worry about is they’re going to be surges of COVID outbreaks in schools that are going to have schools shut down, and then it’s just going to be a snowball effect from there," Wagner said. "Where children are going to be kept home, parents are going to be struggling to work, care for their children, children are not going to be getting the meals, the safety, the services they get at school."

Scott said he can’t re-impose the mask mandates he instituted earlier in the pandemic unless Vermont is in a state of emergency. And he said case counts in the state, which have risen for nine consecutive weeks, still don’t warrant an emergency declaration.

If Scott isn’t willing to leverage his executive authority to create mask mandates, Wagner said, he should at minimum return to the more emphatic mask messaging that he and Levine employed earlier in pandemic.

“It just doesn’t seem like it’s been publicized enough, and it should be really shouted from the rooftops,” Wagner said. “Socially distancing, not being in large closed spaces with people without masks on, wearing masks in public places, I mean these are very, very easy things that we can do as a community and as a population to protect people, and I do think that public messaging needs to be louder.”

“It feels as though we are failing the children of Vermont with our light-handed approach to their safety. It feels as though a year has passed and we have forgotten everything we learned in 2020."
Letter from 400+ health professionals to Gov. Phil Scott

Public health experts are also asking the Scott administration to revise reopening guidance it sent to Vermont school districts earlier this summer.

That guidance calls on schools to adopt universal mask mandates for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination, at the outset of the school year.

According to Education Secretary Dan French, all but one Vermont school district has followed that advice.

But the administration’s guidance also says that once 80% of students who are eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, then districts should drop the mask mandate for that particular school.

Dr. Leah Costello, a pediatrician at Timber Lane Pediatrics in South Burlington, said the risk of transmission doesn’t disappear when schools hit that 80% benchmark.

“The 80% rule sounded great a couple of months ago when we were not in a COVID surge, but unfortunately now we are in a COVID surge, and we do not have any exact date as to when these younger children are getting the vaccine,” Costello said.

Costello isn’t alone in that assessment.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Nearly All Vermont School Districts Have Approved Mask Mandates

On Tuesday, the Vermont Medical Society, Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital urged school districts to keep masking mandates in place until the vaccine is available to children younger than 12, no matter what the vaccination rate is in a given school.

Costello said masking is one of the most effective tools schools have at their disposal to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in classrooms.

She said sound COVID mitigation protocols are needed not just to prevent children from contracting COVID-19, but from the disruptive effects of having to pivot to remote learning when the virus does enter schools.

Earlier this week, just four days after some students returned to the classroom, East Montpelier Elementary School became the first school to close entirely this fall year due to COVID.

“For kids of parents who just cannot take off time from work, or they will lose their job and then not have the income to support their families’ basic housing and food needs — those are the families that I worry about when we think about disruptions from COVID coming into the schools,” Costello said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

Corrected: September 7, 2021 at 9:57 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of health care professionals who signed on to the letter.
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