Reporter debrief: With COVID cases up 55% in last 2 weeks, Scott administration urges masking, but declines mandate
Vermont has seen record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the past week, and state officials said at the governor’s weekly press briefing today that they’re expecting numbers to remain high.
That projection comes as Gov. Phil Scott’s response to the pandemic has come under fire recently from lawmakers who say he should be implementing stricter public health measures, like an indoor mask mandate.
Vermont Edition co-host Connor Cyrus spoke with VPR statehouse reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the big takeaways from today’s press conference. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Connor Cyrus: How did Gov. Scott make his case that Vermont is on the right track, and we don't need any more COVID safety measures?
Peter Hirschfeld: I don't think that Phil Scott is saying we don't need any more COVID safety measures. I think what he's saying is that those safety measures aren't going to come from mandates issued on high from his fifth-floor office in the Pavilion Building — they're going to come from Vermonters being more intentional and thoughtful about how they move through the world.
He said people should wear masks when they're indoors, even if they're vaccinated — though, he did say he doesn't bother wearing one when he goes into convenience stores. He said people need to get tested after they're in an environment in which they might have been exposed to COVID. He said people need to stay home when they're sick. And be especially careful if they're going to be hanging out with loved ones who are older or have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious illness or death as a result of COVID.
Phil Scott basically is saying the future of our COVID situation hinges on what Vermonters are willing to do voluntarily. A lot of lawmakers and public health experts though say it's on the governor to use his executive powers to build a framework that compels responsible COVID behavior. They say that begins with a statewide indoor mask mandate. But as we heard again today, not something the governor has any plans to institute, even if case counts remain at the record highs we've seen this week.
And the governor continues to say that at this point this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and he blames unvaccinated people on the COVID hospitalization numbers. Why was the governor emphasizing hospitalizations today?
Well, he's emphasizing hospitalizations because if we as a state find ourselves in a situation where the need for hospital beds exceeds demand, then we have crossed over a red line that could result in exponentially more sickness and death than we've seen as a result of COVID-19 to date.
The concern is especially pronounced when it comes to ICU beds. We heard today that COVID cases account for about 10 to 15% of ICU admissions. But we also heard that non-COVID related ICU admissions are on the rise, due in large part to medical care that folks have deferred because of the pandemic over the past 20 months. We heard today that there were as few as 10 available ICU slots available statewide at one point over the past week.
And when we see ICU capacity dry up entirely, it means the health care system can't save the lives of people who have a severe heart attack, say, or get seriously injured in a car accident. The governor said he has a contingency plan in place in the event that Vermont does reach a point where the need for ICU beds exceeds capacity. But he would not share that plan publicly today.
When it comes to the rise in cases, last week we saw record-breaking — and I think some even referred to it as "jaw-dropping" — numbers. What was [Health Commissioner] Dr. [Mark] Levine's response to those numbers?
It was interesting, Dr. Levine used his time at the podium today largely to address the question that so many Vermonters have, which is: Why is Vermont experiencing this dramatic rise in cases, especially given our near-the-top-of-the-nation vaccination rates?
He said there's no one explanation, but he said there's sort of a confluence of variables conspiring against us right now. The first is the nature of the delta variant. He says it's far more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus. Another variable is that because Vermont was so successful in keeping cases down early in the pandemic, the population here just didn't build up the same kind of immunity that people in other states accumulated. And he said that compounds our vulnerability to this more contagious delta variant.
Finally, Dr. Levine said that because so many people here signed up for COVID vaccines when they first became available at the beginning of the year, we're also dealing with a large chunk of the population whose vaccine-related immunity is beginning to wane. And Dr. Levine says, all of these things have contributed to this 55% increase in cases we've seen in Vermont over the past two weeks.
Speaking about vaccines, children ages 5 to 11 are now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Where are we with that rollout right now?
Administration officials, at least, seem pretty pleased with progress in the first six days of this vaccine rollout. We don't actually know how many shots have gotten in the arms of 5- to 11-year-olds yet. What we do know is that 14,000 kids have been registered for appointments by parents and guardians through the state-run vaccination system. Those numbers do not include parents who are signing their kids up through pharmacies or making appointments with pediatricians. So we have at least 30% of this age cohort that's registered for shots. But these are the early birds, as Dr. Levine called them today.
The state hitting its ultimate goal of getting 80% of these youngsters immunized against COVID is going to require a lot more parents to sign up their kids. And it's going to be really key to monitor those child vaccination numbers as time progresses, because the state still has a long way to go in hitting its goal.
Do we think that parents are energized and excited? What are you hearing from parents on the ground?
I'm hearing a range of perspectives. I'm hearing from some parents who are very data-science driven people who have this sort of visceral reluctance to get their kids vaccinated.
We know that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Vermont chapter, is addressing that head-on by hosting a series of forums. They're doing them twice a week, every week, during the months of November and December. They know that parents have questions, they know that parents have concerns, and they're trying to address those concerns as fully as possible to convince more parents that this is the right thing to do for their kids.