Mask mandates get new scrutiny, even as Covid booster rate drops
Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a COVID-19 press conference on Sept. 28.

Mask mandates get new scrutiny, even as Covid booster rate drops

Governor: ‘The sooner we can get people, kids in particular, back to normal — and that’s without masks — the better’

Gov. Phil Scott teased the possibility Tuesday of ending or changing the statewide Covid-19 recommendation that K-12 schools require masks for their students and staff.

At the same time, officials urged Vermonters to stay up to date on their vaccines, as the number of Vermonters seeking a booster has declined to the lowest point since adults became eligible for it.

Several states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, recently announced they will end their school mask mandates in the near future amid a regional decline in Omicron cases and hospitalizations.

Scott stopped short of promising the end of masking in school when he spoke at his weekly press conference Tuesday. But asked about the possibility of a shift, Scott said, “We're contemplating that.”

“The sooner we can get people, kids in particular, back to normal - and that's without masks - the better,” he said.

In August, Scott announced plans to allow schools to drop masks when they reached an 80% vaccination rate among students. But as cases rose and the Delta variant spread, the administration repeatedly delayed that move.

Vermont has a Feb. 28 deadline to extend the mask mandate or allow it to end, Scott said.

He reflected on a story he recently heard from a mom whose daughter mentioned that she had never seen the full faces of her school friends because of masks.

“I thought, how sad is that? That they've been in school now for two years. They don't know what their classmates look like or the expressions on their face,” he said. “And it's a big part of this social interaction.”

A return to normalcy is important for improving students' mental health, he said.

“The sooner we can get them back to anything that resembles normal, the better off the kids are going to be,” he said.

At a statewide level, about 60% of children ages 5 to 11 and 77% of children ages 12 to 17 are vaccinated, still below the 80% threshold Scott had aimed for.

Some of Vermont's 14 counties are even well below that level. In Essex County, for example, only 26% of 5- to 11-year-olds are vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

Scott mentioned the possibility of using the 80% threshold for dropping mask mandates as an incentive to encourage vaccination.

“That's still another tool we have and something that we'll be talking about, considering whether we continue with that or do something different,” he said.

Hospitalization rate is key

Changes also may come to what the state recommends for people in other indoor settings, such as stores and workplaces, he said. Scott began recommending indoor masking for adults and children in November.

Scott said if he were to tell kids to stop masking in schools, “then we'd be saying the same thing for other areas as well.” But he also noted a few dozen communities have voted to require indoor masking, he said.

He said he's watching the hospitalization rate to help decide on those new recommendations.

“That's the metric that we're watching to see if it's receding,” Scott said.

The number of Vermonters hospitalized with Covid has fallen 13% in the past week but remains far higher than the pre-Omicron average. As of Tuesday, the health department reported 88 patients were in Vermont hospitals with Covid, including 20 in intensive care, compared with 60 to 80 patients in early to mid-December.

Infections have dropped even further - about 41% in the past week and 65% in the past two weeks, according to data from Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

The health department reported 206 new Covid-19 cases Tuesday for a seven-day average of 396 cases per day, about the same as pre-Omicron levels.

Deaths from the virus continue. The health department reported five more Covid deaths Tuesday for a total of 13 deaths so far in February. In total, 558 people have died of Covid in Vermont since the beginning of the pandemic.

Lingering deaths

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that even as cases decline, deaths are continuing because of the length of time people spend in the hospital before dying.

“Many people who do succumb to this often have a very long hospital stay prior to eventually dying,” he said, adding that some of the deaths under Omicron may even be patients with the Delta variant.

Although older Vermonters are the most vulnerable, Levine said, “Every time I see the list of people who have died from Covid, there are a select group of people … in the middle and older ages who have chosen not to be vaccinated, whose only diagnosis on their death certificate is that they had a Covid-related death.”

The latest health department data confirms that people who are not vaccinated have a higher risk of illness and hospitalization, although the rate of both is dropping even in unvaccinated people.

The health department does not track detailed data by whether someone has received a booster shot, but Pieciak said several new studies have confirmed the booster provides protection against severe illness even for the Omicron strain.

Yet a relatively small slice of Vermonters have received booster shots, compared with the number who received the initial doses of the vaccine.

About 58% of Vermonters 12 and older have received the booster dose, said Jenney Samuelson, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, compared with more than 95% of people in that age group who have gotten at least one shot, according to the health department.

Fewer people than ever are getting their booster shots, according to Pieciak's data. Only 3,580 Vermonters got the booster dose in the past week, compared with a high of more than 26,000 in the weeks after adults became eligible to receive it.

On the other hand, Vermont remains one of the best states in the nation for its vaccinations, including the booster. That includes young Vermonters. About 33% of 12- to 17-year-olds who got the initial course of vaccinations have also been boosted, the highest percentage in the nation.

While boosters provide the strongest protection to older Vermonters, “boosters also have an impact across all ages and health statuses, reducing your chance of spreading it to people at higher risk of a serious outcome,” Levine said.

But he acknowledged that “there's only so much arm-twisting one can do” in trying to persuade people to get the booster dose.

“When you look at the nation's progress, it's been quite slow in this regard as well,” he said. “So there's been a feeling of a lack of sense of urgency that most people have had, even when Omicron was at its worst.”

He hopes integrating booster shots into health care settings will help.

“When you see a patient, you address the issue that they're there for … but you also address what we term 'health maintenance,' which may be, 'are they up to date on screenings - whether a mammogram or what have you - are they up to date on their immunizations, which now includes Covid?'” he said. “So I see abundant opportunities.”

He said the low booster rate should not prevent the state from moving forward.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates