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Gov. Phil Scott resists CDC masking recommendations in Vermont counties with 'high' COVID levels

Gov. Phil Scott in dark suit and plaid tie, talking at a podium during his weekly press conference.
Bob Kinzel
/
VPR
Gov. Phil Scott, seen here at a recent press briefing, says Vermont continues to enjoy the lowest COVID-related hospitalization rate in the country.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging indoor masking in the three Vermont counties where COVID levels are “high,” Gov. Phil Scott and his top health advisors say there’s no need to reinstate masking recommendations in any region of the state.

Scott and Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said during a press briefing Tuesday that the county-by-county risk assessment approach favored by the CDC doesn’t translate well in Vermont.

“Small states, especially small states with rural counties like ours, appear to have more unpredictable and variable case rates in these counties,” Levine said. “And the difference between a count or a color on the map can literally be a few cases.”

Scott, meanwhile, said county borders don’t provide a useful public health delineation in a state as small as Vermont.

Essex, Washington and Windsor counties are all classified as having "high" COVID levels by the CDC.

“We, you know, travel to different communities, we travel to different counties, we work in different places,” Scott said. “We’re just so intertwined with everyone else, small state, so that didn’t make a lot of sense to us.”

While Vermont has seen a modest uptick in COVID case counts of late — up by 11% over the past 14 days, according to the state’s most recent analysis — Levine said the state continues to enjoy the lowest hospitalization rate in the nation.

As of Tuesday, hospitals reported 12 people admitted with COVID. Scott, however, said only four of those patients were hospitalized due to COVID. And he said Vermont had zero COVID-related ICU admissions.

“I think we’re doing pretty well,” Scott said.

"BA.2 … is a more contagious version of omicron, which itself was more contagious than the Delta variant, so it is possible that there may be a slight uptick in cases."
Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine

While at least one central Vermont school district has reinstated mask mandates for students and staff, Secretary of Education Dan French Tuesday urged other districts not to restore stricter mitigation protocols.

“I think it is problematic in Vermont in particular, due to the small size of our counties, to operationalize [CDC guidance] at the school district level on a weekly basis essentially,” French said. “It promotes way too much instability in our schools at a time when we need to have greater stability.”

Levine, however, said his department will reconsider its COVID guidance if current or future variants alter the viral trend.

“We’re hopeful that the pandemic is waning, but two years of experience and heartbreak tells us we have to stay ready for any curve balls the virus may throw at us,” he said.

For now at least, Levine said the BA.2 sub-variant doesn’t appear to be a curve ball of significant concern.

Read more: Health update: State eases masking and isolation guidance

Though BA.2 now accounts for more than 70% of all cases in New England, according to Levine, it has not resulted in “exponential” growth in case counts that would trigger alarm.

“Now BA.2 … is a more contagious version of omicron, which itself was more contagious than the delta variant, so it is possible that there may be a slight uptick in cases,” Levine said.

But, he said, as of now, “things are quite stable, even if they’re prolonged a little by the BA.2 variant.”

Recent wastewater data from Burlington shows an increase in the amount of genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Laura Ann Nicolai, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health, told VPR last week it may be time for individuals that do rely or prefer to wear a mask to put it back on.

"If you’d feel more comfortable wearing a mask when you go out, now may be a time you want to be more diligent about that," she said. "Perhaps if you normally wear a face mask, bump up to a KN95. We'd really like to see people continue to use the protective measures they're comfortable with and not assume they're no longer at risk for COVID-19, but also allow for a little more individual decision making around that."

Moments before Tuesday's press briefing began, the federal Food and Drug Administration authorized a second booster of two COVID vaccines — Moderna and Pfizer — for people 50 and older, and for people 12 and older with certain immunocompromising health conditions.

Levine said he was not prepared yet to announce whether the FDA announcement would alter state-level vaccine guidance in Vermont.

“We need to read closely what the FDA is saying and analyze what data they have provided to make that recommendation,” Levine said. “We’ll have more to say after we’ve done our review.”

VPR's Lexi Krupp contributed to this report.

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

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Updated: March 30, 2022 at 11:05 AM EDT
This story was updated to include the names of the three counties in which the CDC classifies COVID levels as being "high."
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