WESTMINSTER — On Oct. 25, I stood with nurses, doctors, fellow legislators, and advocates for those who lack housing at a press conference at the Vermont State House calling on Gov. Phil Scott to do more to protect Vermonters against the rapidly rising rate of COVID-19.
The state of emergency has been lifted, but we are still facing a public health crisis.
Last week, we had the highest single-day case rate of COVID-19 in Vermont: 591 cases. In a single day!
Our Covid rates rose 55 percent over two weeks recently. As of Nov. 15, data from The New York Times showed that the state's 14-day case rate jumped 82 percent, with the state ranking sixth in the nation by case rate at 57 people per 1,000.
Gov. Scott just keeps responding that people should get vaccinated. Vaccines are very important, but they are not the only strategy needed to protect public health.
Vaccinated people can catch Covid and can spread it to other vaccinated people. I caught it in August, as did my son and my husband. All of us had minor cases, and we all recovered quickly. We were all fully vaccinated.
Vaccination is not enough to prevent severe illness and death for vulnerable Vermonters. For those who are older or with compromised immune systems, breakthrough Covid can have long-lasting effects and can kill. Thirty percent of those hospitalized in Vermont in late October were vaccinated.
We need better policies to protect Vermonters again.
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As rates rise around the state, all schools in Vermont need a firm masking policy to protect students and staff. Recently, Kate Larose, a parent from Canaan, wrote to me, concerned that “Phil Scott and his administration have shifted to the language of 'personal responsibility.'”
“As the parent of a child who is high risk, our 'personal responsibility' since the statewide protection measures were dropped in June have included: driving four hours a day to get our child to an elementary school with universal masking, paying extra for food and essentials to be delivered or picked up curbside, being unable to participate in the majority of civic or social life,” she continued.
“Unfortunately, our personal choices don't stand a chance in a state with an administration that blatantly refuses to follow the science and data-driven mask mandates,” Larose said.
We need policies that make in-person learning and community opportunities possible and safer for all. We need protocols to help us keep schools open and keep Vermonters more healthy.
The delta variant spreads more easily than earlier versions of Covid. A sneeze or cough by an unmasked person, whether vaccinated or not, can spread the coronavirus, especially in settings - like in classrooms - where prolonged exposure occurs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masking should happen indoors regardless of vaccination status. We need universal masking in public indoor places to contain the spread in Vermont. Telling businesses to make their own policies is inadequate.
Earlier in the pandemic, Gov. Scott provided guidelines about indoor gatherings that kept the rates of spread low. At my local movie theater, when I asked about masks recently, I was told: “As we have throughout the pandemic, we are following the governor's guidelines.”
Unfortunately, restrictions about indoor crowd sizes and mask requirements were lifted with the end of the state of emergency, so masks are no longer required.
With few guidelines, we incur more risk.
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Gov. Scott has not only failed to reinstate a state of emergency to address Covid in Vermont, he also has blocked communities from implementing their own protective policies.
In Brattleboro, the largest town in Windham County, the Selectboard passed a mask mandate for businesses. But without an emergency order in place, the governor and the commissioner of health, Dr. Mark Levine, had to approve the measure - and they refused.
In my community, in the northern part of Windham county, very few wear masks indoors at this time. Earlier in the pandemic, people followed the governor's guidelines well. But since the state of emergency was lifted, our rates have gone up, and Scott has provided almost no guidance except “get vaccinated.”
As we move into cooler weather, we will be indoors more, with closed windows reducing fresh-air circulation. Masks can be an even more important barrier to slow the spread of Covid in our schools and our businesses.
In August, 91 employees from the state Department of Health signed on to a letter to Dr. Levine, expressing their “deep concern at what we believe to be a lack of adequate COVID-19 prevention guidance from our Health Department to Vermonters at this unique stage of the pandemic.”
The next month (September), more than 70 women health care workers sent a letter to Gov. Scott.
”It feels as though we are failing the children of Vermont with our light-handed approach to their safety,” they wrote. “It feels as though a year has passed and we have forgotten everything we learned in 2020.”
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Twenty-six states have a state of emergency at this time. Vermont should be one of them.
A state of emergency would give the governor the power to make proactive policies regarding universal masking, travel, quarantine, and limits on people gathering.
We no longer stand out as a state that is doing all it can to protect its residents and our guests. For much of the year, Vermont had the lowest rates of Covid in the country. Looking at a map of the United States you would see Vermont in bright green, surrounded by yellow and red in the rest of the country. Now, due to our high rates of community spread, our state is red. We are 19th in cases in the U.S. with nearly three deaths per day.
Vermont must do better. Many people who voted for Gov. Scott did so because they thought he was doing a good job managing the pandemic. It's time for him to to do so again, to get back on track with proactive policies to protect us.