BRATTLEBORO—Thanksgiving has passed, winter is beginning, and local and state officials are concerned that another surge in COVID-19 cases will hit Vermont in the coming weeks.
The Selectboard chose to be proactive and, on Nov. 23, became the first town in the state to adopt an indoor mask policy to reduce the spread of COVID-19, just as the emergence of its Omicron variant in other parts of the world in recent days has caused renewed concern.
By a 4–1 vote, with Selectboard member Tim Wessel dissenting, the following policy was adopted: “All establishments located in the town of Brattleboro that invite the public into their premises for the purpose of receiving services, purchasing products, or otherwise transacting business, shall require both staff and customers (or visitors) to wear cloth face coverings or face shields over their nose and mouth while inside.”
The town had required the wearing of masks inside public spaces in the spring of 2020 but dropped the mandate this past June after Vermont’s state of emergency was lifted.
But board members changed their minds in August as the virus’s highly contagious Delta variant started spreading through Vermont.
The board’s attempts to reimpose the mandate came to an impasse at the state level, where Gov. Phil Scott and his administrative team took the position that communities could not impose restrictions without the underlying state of emergency at the state level.
Scott had since rebuffed calls to reinstate a statewide indoor mask policy, but a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont, and increased pressure from Democratic legislative leaders, prompted him to offer what he called a compromise: a bill allowing municipalities to enact local, time-limited mask requirements of their own.
The Vermont Legislature passed the measure on Nov. 22 during a special one-day legislative session. It was approved in the Senate 17–10 and in the House, 90–41.
The bill received nearly unanimous opposition by Republican members of both chambers.
Under the new law, which Scott signed Nov. 23, if a mask mandate is approved by a selectboard, it would be in effect for an initial period of 45 days and then be subject to renewal every 30 days.
All mask policies will ultimately expire by April 30, 2022.
Delta variant fuels case growth
The Delta variant has proven itself to be a formidable foe. The state’s second- and third-deadliest months of the pandemic have occurred since July 2021, when Delta became the predominant strain of the Coronavirus. The highest numbers of new cases and hospitalizations have also occurred during this time frame in Vermont.
In Vermont, between March 7, 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported, and June 30, 2021, 24,415 cases were reported, according to the Vermont Department of Health. That figure more than doubled from June 30 to Nov. 29, as the total cumulative case count rose to 49,801.
The death toll saw a similar increase during that time frame.
On June 30, the Health Department said that 258 Vermonters had died due to COVID-19. By Nov. 29, that figure had risen to 410.
In Windham County, there have been 2,812 confirmed cases and 26 deaths since March 2020.
While the statistics over the past few months have been grim, Vermont is still faring better than the rest of the nation in dealing with the pandemic.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the Delta wave, Vermont had the 11th-fewest detected cases of COVID-19, the fourth-fewest COVID-19 hospital admissions, and the ninth-lowest per capita death rate.
Vermont remains among the highest-vaccinated states in the country. Heading into this week, according to the Health Department, 92.9 percent of Vermonters over age 12 are partially or fully vaccinated, and 34 percent of children aged 5 to 11 are partially vaccinated.
The high vaccination rates in Vermont — and adherence to public health guidance — has kept the pandemic under control, sparing the state the nightmarish images from other states of intensive care units in hospitals filled to overflowing.
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated Americans are five times less likely to be infected and about 10 times less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus.
Initial signs seem to indicate that the Omicron variant is more contagious than Delta but not necessarily more deadly.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said on Nov. 29 that no identified cases associated with the new variant have emerged in Vermont to date, but he added that its emergence “is an important reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is still here with us.”
Levine said that the Health Department will continue to closely monitor any new developments, that it continues to obtain genomic sequencing information on SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) specimens, and that it will report any detection of the Omicron variant in Vermont.
“There is a lot that is still unknown about this new variant, but it appears to be more infectious, already showing up in various countries, including Canada,” said Levine. “Research over the next few weeks will determine whether Omicron will affect the severity of illnesses, and how effective the current vaccines are against Omicron.”
Levine reiterated that vaccines “are still our best defense against COVID-19. If you have not yet gotten your vaccine or booster shot, now is the time.”
“Both take about two weeks to be fully effective, and as we get further into the holiday season, the more people who are protected, the better off we will all be,” he said.