Reporter Debrief: Scott Expands State Employee Vaccination Mandate, School Masking Recommendations
Beginning Sept. 15, all government employees in Vermont will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Scott administration wants to extend mask mandates in Vermont schools until at least next month. Those were two big pieces of news out of Gov. Phil Scott's weekly press briefing on Wednesday.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld who covered the briefing. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, the governor had previously said he was going to require COVID vaccines for government employees that work in residential settings like the prisons and the state-run psychiatric hospital, but now he's expanding that mandate to all employees in the government. What was the rationale behind that decision?
Peter Hirschfeld: So, just to be clear, effective Sept.15, all state of Vermont executive branch employees will have to self-attest that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19. If they aren't willing to do that, then they face weekly testing requirements, and also will have to abide by a mask mandate in government offices in order to be allowed to stay on the job.
There are two things at play behind this decision, I think. One, we're at the stage of the vaccination process where the state is really going almost one by one after the 75,000 or so eligible residents who still haven't gotten vaccinated. State government employs more than 8,000 people. To the extent that some of those folks aren't yet vaccinated, this may be one way to compel them to get the shot.
And I also think the governor sees this as an opportunity to lead by example. After announcing this vaccine mandate today, he said, almost in the same breath, that he's encouraging private sector businesses to follow suit. When people's economic fortunes are tied to their vaccine status, it may change the calculus for people who have been hesitant for whatever reason to get a shot, and the governor’s of the mind that the more companies we have in this state that require vaccinations among their workers, the more people are going to get vaccinated.
The governor also announced some changes to COVID guidance for Vermont schools, though not the mask mandate that some parents have been clamoring for. So, what is that latest guidance, and why did he decide to change it now?
So, the previous guidance, Henry, called for all Vermont school districts to adopt mask mandates for the first 10 days of school, but it said that after that 10-day period, schools in which 80% of eligible students have at least one dose of the vaccine should drop those mask mandates.
Today, the governor and Education Secretary Dan French said new guidance is forthcoming, and they said that guidance will call on schools to keep their mask mandates in place until at least Oct. 4, regardless of how many students in a given school are vaccinated.
I think it's a response to the level of viral transmission we're seeing in Vermont communities. More than 1,000 people tested positive for COVID in Vermont over the past week. And we saw data today that showed 81 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont schools last week alone. That's the fifth highest weekly total for K-12 schools since the beginning of the pandemic.
Now most schools have made the move to full-time, in-person learning, so it follows that we'd see higher case counts. But Dan French and the governor say they need to understand more about how this virus is circulating through communities before they encourage schools to lift mask mandates.
I will say, Henry, that based on some texts I received from people who are strong proponents of a statewide mask mandate, their concerns will not be alleviated by this by this announcement today. They still think that the governor should declare a state of emergency and get a statewide mask mandate in place for all Vermont schools.
And finally, Pete, we've been hearing a lot about the issue of vaccine boosters lately. What's that rollout going to look like here in Vermont for those who want to get a third shot?
So, no dates or locations yet, Henry, but Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith says the state is actively planning right now for the vaccine booster rollout later this month, and it's going to look a lot like things did back in February and March when vaccines first became available.
Staff at health care institutions and staff and residents at long-term care facilities will be first in line for boosters. Mike Smith says his agency has already been in touch with more than two thirds of long-term care facilities in the state. And he says he's confident they're going to be able to get boosters in the arms of those folks pretty efficiently when the government finally begins allocating booster shots to states.
And when it comes time for the general population to get boosters, it's going to also look a lot like it did back in the beginning of the year. We're talking here about large-scale vaccine clinics where health care providers are going to be administering shots en masse at special sites across the state. Mike Smith said Vermonters will find out more about these sites in the coming weeks, but he said people will need to get an appointment in order to receive a shot at one of those sites. Local pharmacies will be playing a role in administering those booster shots as well.