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Reporter debrief: State ramps up testing capacity to meet Thanksgiving demand

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Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet address press on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Scott and his team said they are expanding testing capacity ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Nov. 23, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

Case counts remain elevated, and 30 Vermonters so far have died of the virus this month.

Vermont Edition’s Connor Cyrus spoke with Statehouse reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the takeaways from the press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: Yesterday, the Vermont Legislature approved a bill that would allow municipal governments to enact local mask mandates. Today, Gov. Phil Scott signed that bill. But during the press conference today, he didn't really seem to support that bill. What was his reasoning?

Peter Hirschfeld: It was funny, wasn't it? I mean, the governor had a lot of strong, negative language for mandates for a guy that just a few hours ago, signed a bill that is going to allow municipalities to enact local mask mandates.

The governor says he's all for masks indoors, and that his administration, in fact, is strongly urging Vermonters — regardless of their vaccination status — to wear masks when they're in indoor spaces, with people outdoors outside their immediate household. What he's opposed to, as he reiterated again today, is mask mandates.

For one, he doesn't think they're going to work. He says at this stage in the pandemic, people who aren't wearing masks already aren't going to change their behavior based on a mandate. And he says there's a social science to his opposition to mandates as well. He’s of the belief that mandates are going only intensify mistrust of government among people who are already skeptical of their government leaders, and further alienate the people that he’s still trying to convince to get the vaccine.

He thinks the mandate is at cross-purposes with his main strategy right now, though, as he said, there are people who feel differently than he does, including some influential and powerful leaders in the Vermont Legislature. And so, he said as an effort to try to work with them, he was willing to sign on to this local mask mandate legislation.

Now, as you just mentioned, he did call this an "olive branch," I believe it was last week. And I think he continues to refer to it as that. How are people responding to this olive branch now that this has gone into legislation?

They did not view this as an olive branch at all. They viewed it as the governor confining them into some really tight guardrails around what they could and couldn't do with this legislation. I think if the governor had not included those guardrails, then you would have seen a much-further-reaching piece of legislation from the Legislature yesterday. And something that could have possibly included a statewide mask mandate.

Watch the Scott administration's Nov. 23, 2021 press conference:

Gov. Phil Scott made it abundantly clear ahead of that special session that if they veered beyond what he was comfortable with, that he would veto that bill and they'd get nothing. So, you know, while the governor is calling it sort of an olive branch, this is a compromise he's offered. That was not legislators’ perception of it.

We’re heading into this Thanksgiving holiday for some, and guidance has been issued. Keep gatherings small, gather with vaccinated people, stay home if you're sick, the usual, but the state is ramping up on testing to ensure safety. So, what do we know about what the state is doing for testing?

Well, what we what we know is that 70,000 Vermonters have gotten a COVID test over the past week; that's 10% of the state's entire population, as Phil Scott noted during the briefing.

And Human Services Secretary Mike Smith says given this strong demand, his agency is going to be ramping up testing infrastructure across the board. That includes in the immediate future. They're going to be opportunities for people to get tested tomorrow, the day before Thanksgiving, and have results back before Thanksgiving. So, a really quick turnaround.

This is in part possible due to new technology called LAMP testing. I'm not going to try to recall what the acronym stands for Connor, maybe you remember, but the bottom line is that Gov. Scott and his team think that widespread frequent testing is going to be a key mitigation tool as we enter the next phases of the pandemic.

He said, you know, COVID’s going to be with us for years. We can't beat it, but we can manage and contain it. And he foresees a place where individuals can get tested, get their results day of or day after, and that's going to be a real critical way to mitigate the transmission of this virus over the long term.

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

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